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UNIVERSAL 

LIBRARY 


OU_210236g 


73 


UNIVERSAL 




UNIVERSITY LIBRARY 

Can No. Accession No. 3^52^ 

Autho. 

Title ^ 

This book should be returned on or before the date last marked below. 






MAKING A POEM 



By Melville Cane: a wider arc 



Making a Poem 

AN INQUIRY INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS 
BY MELVILLE CANE 


HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY 


NEW YORK 



COPYRIGHT, 1953, BY MELVILLE CANE 


All rights reserved, including 
the right to reproduce this boo\ 
or portions thereof in any form. 


first edition 


Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 53-5648 


P R I N T E D^-MT-Th E UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 



In Memory of Florence 




CONTENTS 

Introduction ix 

1 . Maying a Poem 3 

2 . Threshold to Creation 9 

3 >, To Heed the Signal 16 

4 . Unfinished Business 19 

5 . Random Observations 23 

6. **Unda** and the Dictionary 27 

7 . How *'Humbly, Wildly** Was Born 31 

8 . Concerning ^*HoJ{inson** 39 

9 . Germination 48 

10 . The Story of **Bed-Time Story** 52 

11 . Climate of the Heart 56 

12 . Genesis of **The Dismal Month** 59 

13 . "Light Verse 65 

14 . Snow: Theme with Variations 76 

15 . The Rat Image 89 

16 . "'The Fly** and Its Problems 96 

A Man from Porlock 108 




INTRODUCTION 




I HAVE ALWAYS been interested in writing poems, and not at 
all in writing about them. In the past I shied away from any 
analysis of the creative process, not so much to hug the secret 
of how my poems had come to pass but because of doubt that 
I could communicate anything worth while. Perhaps I felt 
unconsciously that I had never tried to explain to myself, let 
alone to anyone else, the seemingly unfathomable mystery. 

A chance conversation changed all this. It differed from 
earlier ones on the general subject since this time I summoned 
the energy to write it down, however reluctantly. 

That evening, after our guests had left, I was still in a glow 
from having talked about myself. Most importantly, I had 
deeply impressed my wife. She proceeded to read me a lecture 
on obstinacy and insisted that I do something about it, not 
tomorrow or next week but right now. So, cutting short fur- 
ther argument, I capitulated then and there and put everything 
down on paper before turning in for the night. I called the 
piece “Making a Poem,” and sent it to The Forum magazine 
which accepted it. 

The matter might have ended there but for an unforeseen 
circumstance. The piece attracted attention. Letters began com- 
ing in — from fellow poets not usually tempted to praise, from 
teachers of literature, and from people altogether removed 
from the world of esthetics but curious to know what makes 


IX 



INTRODUCTION 


the wheels turn. “Making a Poem” soon found its way into 
anthologies and textbooks on creative writing. Its encouraging 
reception stirred me to further interior exploration of the cre- 
ative process as I experienced it. 

What moved me most strongly was the realization that a 
large general public existed which held itself aloof from poetry 
as something not to be comprehended or enjoyed by the aver- 
age intelligence. As this realization sharpened I grew more 
willing to take the world into my confidence, to expose myself 
autobiographically by reporting so far as lay within my powers 
the step-by-step, trial-and-error operations from the first tap- 
pings on the door of the unconscious to the emergence of the 
final form, the completed expression. This I have sought to 
do honestly, accurately, and faithfully. A retentive memory 
and my notes and worksheets have been of much help. 

The task has moreover been illuminating for me as a revela- 
tion through self-investigation and self-analysis of the nature of 
my own psychological and esthetic constitution. In reviewing 
the poems, as will be seen, I have discovered influences and 
factors of which I was wholly unaware at the time of and in 
the act of composition. 

Specialists in these matters inform me that my type of ap- 
proach, non-technical, personal to the point of self-disclosure, 
circumstantial in its detailed examination of particulars, is 
something new in the literature. I know nothing about this. 

Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” at a century’s dis- 
tance anticipates what I have done here. With a sly thrust at 
the vanity of poets and their failure to understand their own 
processes, he observes: 

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be 
written by any author who would — that is to say, who could detail, 


X 



INTRODUCTION 


Step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions 
attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has 
never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say; but 
perhaps the authorial vanity has had more to do with the omission 
than any one other cause. Most writers — poets in especial — prefer 
having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy 
— an ecstatic intuition; and would positively shudder at letting the 
public take a peep behind the scenes at the elaborate and vacillating 
crudities of thought, at the true purposes seized only at the last 
moment, at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at 
the maturity of full view, at the fully matured fancies discarded in 
despair as unmanageable, at the cautious selections and rejections, 
at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels 
and pinions, the tackle for scene-shifting, the step-ladders and 
demon-traps, the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, 
which in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred constitutes the prop- 
erties of the literary histrio. 

‘‘Authorial vanity” has not deterred me and I don’t compose 
“by a species of fine frenzy” but laboriously and gropingly. 

I have no wish to impose my views on others or to dogma- 
tize on how poetry should be written. It would be presump- 
tuous to do so since I am no authority except for myself. 

Many of these pieces have already appeared in The American 
Scholar, The University of Kansas City Review, The Saturday 
Review of literature, and The Forum. Their publication and 
the favorable response thereafter suggest that the material is 
of interest and, I trust, of value to a variety of readers. 

Finally, my deepest regret is that the person to whom I owe 
most is no longer here to take her rightful share in what has 
been a true collaboration. I cannot close without acknowledg- 
ing my vast debt to Florence, my wife, whose unfailing under- 
standing, support, and devotion to the project has inspired and 
guided me to its fruition. 


XI 




MAKING A POEM 




ONE 


Maying a Poem 


“But how do you go about writing your poems?” 

A fair question, but I confess I usually stiffen and close up 
under it, as if the answer were too complicated for utterance, 
in any event incomprehensible. However, on occasion when 
the questioner by her serious eagerness — it’s usually a she — has 
demonstrated her right to enlightenment. I’ve been moved to 
search for an intelligible answer. 

When I was a small boy we had in our library huge, im- 
comfortable one-volume editions, in calf or morocco, of The 
Complete Poetical Wor\s of Byron, Scott, Moore, Burns, also 
the New England “classics,” Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson. 
I recall with what awe I approached them. Their authors were 
“Poets,” and as such aloof Olympians, divinely chosen, whose 
words were all equally holy and beautiful beyond the reach of 
criticism. These rare and special souls grouped themselves in 
my imagination upon a mountain peak, close to the All High- 
est, sharing his ethereal rays. 

While my particular case was doubtless extreme, it repre- 
sents, I find, to an amazing degree the attitude of the unedu- 
cated reading public toward poets and poetry. Poets apparently 
are of a race apart, their work is “inspired.” To most persons 

3 



MAKING A POEM 


the nature of the creative act, the factors involved, remain a 
mystery too troublesome for investigation. 

Being a lawyer as well as a writer of verse makes my situa- 
tion even more perplexing, produces further questions. 

“How do you find time to do it ?” “How do you manage to 
have enough energy over, after a long day at the office?” “I 
suppose you write only on summer vacations.” Self-consciously 
disclaiming any superiority of virtue, one replies that the time 
some people take for bridge or golf can be used in writing; that 
the intense desire to do a thing may generate its own energy 
in the doing; that the act of composition can assert itself, re- 
gardless of place, day of the week, or season. 

Now, if this simple preliminary observation manages to sink 
in acceptably, I may next be confronted with the query which 
opens this piece: 

“But how do you go about writing your poems?” 

There’s an element of bafflement in that challenging “but.” 
I counter with: 

“You’ve oversimplified the problem. Each poem proceeds 
from its own peculiar momentum.” 

The other evening a sympathetic young woman pursued 
this very line of cross-examination, ending with: “But you 
must start with some form, mustn’t you?” She was fingering 
the pages of a book of mine. “Take this short piece,” she said, 
“ ‘One by One.’ What have you got to say about that?” 

This, in substance, is what I said about that. But first to set 
down the poem, in all its simplicity. 

One by One 

One by one, 

Branch to branch. 

Leaves topple, 


4 



MAKING A POEM 


Zigzag 

Through motionless October, 

Struggle, 

Founder, — 

Golden birds 
With broken wings. 

I was spending a Sunday in the country at the height of 
autumn. The foliage had turned to gold and scarlet; the sun, 
bright in a cloudless sky, had lost some of its earlier intensity. 
On every hand were intimations of a dying season. I walked 
along a shady road past fields stacked with corn-stalks, past 
fading wild flowers. The scene held both serenity and sadness. 
Unconsciously as I moved along I must have relaxed the stresses 
of city life, yielded to the mood of the season, and for the mo- 
ment been at peace. It is this state of detachment, this absence 
of conflict which must ensue before artistic creation is possible. 
This condition can be induced consciously; more often it 
simply happens. 

That day it simply happened. The gentlest breeze stirred; 
a few leaves now and then slowly drifted down from tall New 
England maples, not in a cloudy swirl but one by one. That 
was how I saw and felt them, “one by one.” The words per- 
sisted warmly, appealingly. I stepped through the file of trees 
to the beat of them. This one-by-oneness, this singleness of each 
leaf fitted my own sense of solitude; the phrase had acquired 
heat and feeling. It had soon become an entity, a nucleus, the 
signal to me, should I choose to heed it, that a poem was in 
process of becoming. In this instance I did choose to listen and 
obey. Accordingly I set to work to report the experience as 
objectively, as free from moral comment, as possible. 

The initial haunting phrase struck me as the right unit line 
to set the pace and suggest the climate of the poem. I likewise 

5 



MAKING A POEM 


saw the need of brevity in the telling. These were not arbitrary, 
a priori decisions, mentally arrived at, but rather commands 
imposed on the sensibilities by something beyond my control. 
A convenient name for this something is the creative process; 
through its activity form and content are inseparable mani- 
festations of one unifying operation. 

Thus my first line became 

One by one. 

I then proceeded to reobserve the occurrence. The movement 
extended down from the top of each tree, from 

Branch to branch. 

This made a satisfactory companion line to the first, of 
equal length and appropriate weight. With these preliminaries 
at least tentatively sketched — for they were of course subject 
not only to change but to abandonment — it was now the mo- 
ment to introduce the dramatis personae and their course. I 

next wrote: Leaves flutter. 

Zigzag 

Through glorious October. 

But, submitted to a sharper test, “flutter” seemed common- 
place and inexact as well, and “glorious” seemed mere filler, 
contributing nothing to the life of the poem. Once freed from 
the branch the leaves more accurately “went down” rather 
than fluttered. “Topple” seemed best to describe the helpless- 
ness I wished to indicate. “Zigzag” I liked from the beginning 
since it suggested retarded movement, backing and filling. And 
further to emphasize a certain timelessness and impending- 
ness, I substituted “motionless” for “glorious.” 

6 



MAKING A POEM 


By this time the poem was well along its brief career, the 
leaves were making their inconsequential descent. If their 
destiny were merely to drop to earth, the situation would have 
been unworthy of record. Something more was implicit, a 
sense of drama which I attempted to supply with the single 
word 

Struggle, 


followed by the word of defeat: 

Founder. 


I chose these two words carefully out of many synonyms 
not only for their apt meaning, but because “struggle” made a 
sound-balance, though not a rhyme, with “topple,” and 
“founder” with “October,” thus also weaving a closer texture 
for the poem. 

Up to this point, therefore, I had written: 

One by one, 

Branch to branch. 

Leaves topple. 

Zigzag 

Through motionless October, 

Struggle, 

Founder. 

I had induced the mood, found the right line-by-line pace, 
suggested the slow, seasonal disintegration, but had yet to in- 
fuse the whole with that emotional glow, that electric charge 
without which a poem fails to come off and to be memorable 
to the reader. I needed a vivid, poignant image to sum up and 
crystallize the sense of pain and beauty, an image which to 
carry must be relevant and extracted from the materials at 
hand. And so, as I refelt the experience and brooded on it, 
there came to me this picture: 


7 



MAKING A POEM 


Golden birds 
With broken wings. 

I had done what I set out to do. 

Emily Dickinson once said: “If I feel physically as if the top 
of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Not mean- 
ing to invite comparisons, I confess to a similar stirring of the 
blood after finishing any piece which keenly satisfies my inten- 
tions. This physical recognition, being subjective, is of course 
no criterion of the poem’s ultimate worth or of its impact upon 
the reader or listener. One can only hope that the desired com- 
munication will result. 

To repeat, no two poems have the same origin or travel 
parallel paths in their development. And no two poets have 
the same approach. The spark which notifies the poet that 
there’s a poem on the way may arise from a chance word, from 
a thought slowly, persistently germinating, from an intimation 
defying classification. 

I am dealing essentially with lyric poetry. Both the problem 
and the aspiration of the lyric poet can at least be hinted at 
in the words of Professor Whicher, biographer of Emily Dick- 
inson : 

The lyric ... lay ready to her hand as the traditional vehicle 
of impassioned thought. She accepted it as unquestionably as she 
accepted the alphabet. There were black symbols on white paper, 
words arranged in rhythmic patterns. How could these dead, me- 
chanical things be made to throb with the high excitement of the 
soul? How could the living truth be flashed through them from 
mind to mind ? 


8 



TWO 


Threshold to Creation 


Many and various are the impulses that lead to the writing of 
verse. I shall by no means attempt to catalogue all of them. One 
person may be driven by an inner urge to formulate some 
personal truth or revelation, half buried, and in need of clarifi- 
cation and assertion. Another may take a sheer sensory delight 
in the sound and shape of words, in their rhythmic relation- 
ships, the felicitous interplay of vowels and consonants. Still 
a third person, brooding on the mystery of the cosmos, may 
seek to extract its secrets and preserve in harmonious form his 
humble and fragmentary discoveries. Whatever the motive, it 
stems from the need to make a concrete design out of unex- 
pressed feeling, sensations, intuitions, to extract and lift par- 
ticles of order out of the general chaos. 

The creative experience, however, is destined to failure, un- 
less the preliminary conditions for the adventure are recog- 
nized and soundly established. Assuming that the initial 
impulse is active and eagerly present, I suppose the first re- 
quirement before it can be successfully employed is the need 
for receptivity. One cannot create, since one is not in a state 
of receptivity, if one’s libido, to adopt Dr. Jung’s use of the 
term, is already involved elsewhere. One must first rid oneself 
of involvements both internal and external. 


9 



MAKING A POEM 


A person can’t function as a free agent if his emotional 
energy is consumed in worrying over a mother’s health, or a 
husband’s business troubles, or the children’s minor tragedies, 
to name but a few obstacles across a writer’s path. The number 
of distractions could be increased indefinitely. 

Even if none of such deterrents may block one, we unfor- 
tunately — each according to his perverse fashion — make other 
difficulties to plague us. In order to write, and especially to 
write verse, one must arrange one’s life so as not to be caught 
and trapped by outside activities. The writer of verse, whose 
work is so largely spasmodic, is in an extra-hazardous position 
for that very reason. 

By outside activities, I include everything inimical to whole- 
hearted immersion in what should be one’s sole concern; to 
name a few distractions, service on committees, community 
drives, occupation with politics, addiction to the movies, watch- 
ing baseball games or prize fights over television, listening to 
radio programs, killing time on crossword puzzles. 

These suggested prohibitions should not imply that the poet 
divorce himself from social or civic life with its responsibilities 
and frivolities. They do, however, more sternly command that 
during the period of a poem’s gestation he must stoutly re- 
nounce all temptations of the hour, whether virtuous, in the 
public sense, or wastefully self-indulgent. 

The point to be stressed is that the artist, whatever his field 
or medium, must regard his own work as of paramount con- 
sequence. To this extent he must be egoistic, self-dedicated. He 
must stand ready and braced to meet the criticism of being 
ruled by selfishness, to withstand the accusation that he is not 
doing his duty in society. In his case self-interest or selfishness 
are merely uncomplimentary epithets for faith in his own in- 
dividuality, belief in his calling and his star. Without such faith 


10 



THRESHOLD TO CREATION 


and belief, torn and divided, he will be unable to create to his 
capacity and will be foredoomed to failure. 

This apparent digression brings me back to my starting 
point, the prime and basic need of establishing at the outset 
a condition of receptivity. Before a work of art, in this case 
a poem, can germinate, one must faithfully prepare the soil, 
one must gain detachment. And, since the unconscious is the 
reservoir of the material from which one draws in order to 
create, one must deliberately plan to induce and achieve inner 
peace and serenity before tapping this source and preparing to 
compose. 

How to attain this detachment, therefore, is one’s first task. 
The means will vary according to the individual. In my own 
case I try to cut myself off from the telephone or the ringing 
of the doorbell. I close the door to my room ; if the sunlight is 
distracting — it usually is — I pull down the shades. If it hap- 
pens to be evening, I often sit for a while in the dark before 
touching a pencil. 

I don’t try to think and I don’t try not to think. I do, how- 
ever, try to make myself comfortable and free from bodily 
strains. After a while I become gradually relaxed. Relaxation 
in turn invites a state of passivity, the desired condition of re- 
ceptivity. The deeper the passivity the closer one draws to the 
unconscious. 

When one arrives at this condition of receptivity he rests on 
the threshold of creation. The technique I’ve been describing 
is not mere theory; it’s been proved; it works. A personal ex- 
perience will best illustrate how the mood and the muse can 
be summoned and to what effect. 

One winter I was living with my wife and children in a New 
York hotel. The conditions in a cramped apartment were 
most unfavorable for creative work. I had written nothing for 


II 



MAKING A POEM 


months and was distressed over the impasse. One evening, in 
desperation, I decided to take an affirmative step to try to over- 
come the negative forces blocking me. 

Directly after dinner I said good-night to the family, ex- 
plaining that I was not to be disturbed, closed myself in my 
bedroom, and sat down in the dark. Up to that moment I 
hadn’t a glimmer of an idea for a poem. I started out from 
scratch. 

As you may suppose, it took quite a while for me to settle 
down inside myself. Eventually, however, sitting patiently, 
quietly, undemandingly, in the dark, I began to see within the 
dark. Images, vague and dim, were taking shape and pressing 
through; the most persistent, forceful image had to do with 
sunshine. It seems that naturally and unconsciously I am drawn 
to the effects that light produces at different hours and seasons 
and under varying weather conditions. Critics had pointed 
this out in their reviews before I had realized it by myself. 

To return: this general field of sunshine narrowed down 
with growing intensity to the transitional spell of twilight 
slipping into complete and utter darkness, the swift absorption 
of all natural phenomena into a sea of black, the cancellation 
of daylight and all its incidences. Thus the visual area had be- 
come limited and fenced off ; with this concentration came the 
beginning of concreteness. As the concept strengthened in its 
appeal, my receptivity for sensory impressions, detailed refine- 
ments, selective particulars, correspondingly grew more acute. 
I had generated sufficient power to take off. 

With faculties now alive and urgent, I snapped on the elec- 
tric light and began sprinkling words and phrases on paper. 
Inside of two hours I had completed what looked like the 
finished product but which turned out to be only the semi-final 
version. 


12 



THRESHOLD TO CREATION 


This isn’t the place to deal with the verbal mechanics of the 
operation. I shall deal with technical procedures in later chap- 
ters. I might, however, state in passing that the key word for 
the poem was the adjective “deleble.” It possessed persuasive 
values and advantages. It exactly evoked the impermanence 
and evanescence of daylight which I wished to convey, the im- 
pression that it could be readily erased and expunged. It also 
was a pleasing word to utter and to hear, and to read as well, 
with its fluent arrangement of the letters d, I and b. It had the 
further merit of rarity and strangeness, in fact its very existence 
as a word was later brought into question. But I could defend 
its validity and moreover the exceptional spelling, <fble instead 
of able or ible, remembering the word as a poser in the spelling 
matches of my grammar-school days. 

I mustn’t be diverted from the subject under consideration, 
the initial need for receptivity as a preliminary to creation. But 
as I will show by reproducing here the semi-final and final 
versions of this poem, one should develop and possess a second 
and later kind of receptivity, a willingness to subordinate the 
ego when the poem has been completed and to be open to 
discerning, constructive comment from others. One should re- 
member that the poem one regards as beyond change or im- 
provement still carries within it potentialities of further 
perfectability. 

The first version follows: 

Now that the sun has passed 
Beneath the west. 

Now that the rosy spread 

Begins to fade 

And after-light is thinning, 

Night advances, winning 
Inch on golden inch. 

13 



MAKING A POEM 


Too deleble, alas! 

The dapple on the branch, 

The shimmer on the grass; 

The yellow-green too frail 
On apple-leaves that pale. 

Violet dims, night hastens. 

Blue lessens, black fastens; — 

Not a thing the eye can shape 
Can escape. 

On finishing version i I showed it to my old friend, John 
Erskine, who responded with expressions of praise. 

“But,” he added good-naturedly and characteristically, “you 
know Tm never quite happy without registering at least one 
note of dissent. It’s about those last two lines. You’re deal- 
ing here with the swift, almost imperceptible, transition from 
light to dark, and you’ve registered this fleeting change in the 
right tempo until you come to the final couplet. Then, instead 
of closing sharply you slow down with ‘can shape’ and ‘can 
escape.’ The lines are too leisurely. Instead they should move 
with the utmost rapidity. You need to accelerate the speed.” 

The advice was so right, so satisfying to my sense of musical 
values, that I accepted it unhesitatingly. We were in agreement 
that the active verbs “shapes” and “escapes” took care of his 
objection. And so I wrote down version 2: 

Now that the sun has passed 
Beneath the west. 

Now that the rosy spread 

Begins to fade 

And after-light is thinning. 

Night advances, winning 
Inch on golden inch. 

Too deleble, alas! 

The dapple on the branch, 

The shimmer on the grass; 

14 



THRESHOLD TO CREATION 


The yellow-green too frail 
On apple-leaves that pale. 

Violet dims, night hastens, 

Blue lessens, black fastens; — 

Not a thing the eye shapes 
Escapes. 

The poem “Too Deleble, Alas!” is the story of the applica- 
tion of my theory that the psychological preparation and ad- 
justment of the poet is a prerequisite to composition. 

Things of course don’t always work out so well. But the prin- 
ciple prevails nevertheless; receptivity must be established be- 
fore creation can ensue. 


15 



THREE 


To Heed the Signal 


I SHOULD LIKE TO STRESS thc need of awareness and vigilance at 
the instant when one first feels the mysterious summons of the 
creative current. Such a summons, it often happens, is but a 
feeble signal and liable to pass unrecognized. Figuratively one 
should prick up one’s ears in alerted anticipation. As one’s 
sensory, emotional, and mental stimuli grow more acute and 
swift, after many repeated experiences, one develops the habit 
of expectancy, and is not so easily caught off guard. In time 
one may even be able to objectify the onrush of poetic energy 
as a physical event, and to harness it to one’s will. 

When our senses become sharpened and our emotions highly 
charged the intensity of this poetic stream deepens and mounts 
with increasing psychic urgency. One becomes not only pos- 
sessed but at the same time and in the same operation one may 
consciously gain possession and mastery. 

This heightening and heating up of the emotions may arise 
from an infinite variety of reactions, from elation and ecstasy, 
from rage and hate. 

Let me illustrate, since the report of an actual experience will 
bring home the point far more effectively than any ^nerali- 
zation. 

I was spending a quiet and contented vacation at home in the 

i6 



TO HEED THE SIGNAL 


country when suddenly an episode occurred to shatter my 
peace of mind and lash me into a fury. It involved a piece of 
injustice and cruel behavior. I boiled over with helpless anger, 
a negative emotion and correspondingly destructive. Ordi- 
narily, and in response to impulse, the situation would have 
overwhelmed me. The surge of emotion would have risen and 
receded without profit, leaving nothing but a residue of pain 
and injury. 

But on this particular occasion I saw objectively the state I 
had whipped myself into; I became sufficiently detached to 
realize that here at hand was an unexpected gift of creative 
energy, which I must not reject but put to positive advantage. 
To state it in another way I was driven consciously to convert 
this emotional shock from its negative content to something 
positive and constructive. Should I succeed in this effort at self- 
control I would psychologically do myself a service and in the 
process conceivably achieve a poem. The kind of poem I might 
produce, its subject, its mood, was of course unpredictable. 

With this aim I rushed upstairs to the calm of my room and 
seated myself before my desk with pencil and paper. Curbing 
my agitation but preserving its potency I ultimately produced 
the following verses, which, to my surprise, made a picture of 
blissful serenity — quite the opposite condition from the one 
which had generated it. 

Here is the poem: ^ 

* Clouds 

There were no flowers in the sky, 

Only a cobalt field 

Of glittering July. 

Under 

My gaze of wonder 

You grew 

From gathered dew. 


17 



MAKING A POEM 


Your soil the fertile breeze, 

Your seed the hum of bees, 

Rootless, 

Stemless, 

Earthless 

Blossoms alone and complete. 

Now though you retreat and disappear 
Out of the singing sphere, 

There shall be no lament for fleeting beauty, 

No sighing breath 

For this which is not death. 

Rank decay or rot of leaf 
Cannot mar your passage brief. 

Heaven bore you without pain. 

Heaven a garden will remain, 

Fragrant and without a stain. 

For this one time, at least, I had heeded the signal. 


i8 



FOUR 


Unfinished Business 


You START OUT Confidently, thinking you’ve hit your stride, 
when suddenly and discouragingly you find yourself bogged 
down. What has happened to cancel that condition of serenity 
and on-going } 

The causes are many. Perhaps the project is too ambitious 
for your present capabilities; or the mood may have been de- 
stroyed by some disturbing intrusion. To be called to the tele- 
phone only to be told: “Sorry! Wrong number,” can be 
exasperating enough to upset one beyond repair for the time 
being. Or, maybe you’ve got off on the wrong foot by the 
premature choice of an unsuitable form, such as the adoption 
of a scheme of rhymes, when blank or free verse might be 
the better vehicle, or perhaps there aren’t enough available 
words to take care of the rhyme-scaffold you’re trying to build. 

Perhaps it’s simply that you’ve grown too tired to follow 
through on the first creative level, or, perhaps, you were too 
tired to have begun in the first place. At such a moment I 
find it best to call a temporary recess, do something quite dif- 
ferent, take a day off if necessary, and not resume work until 
I am refreshed and re-energized. 

This is the moment of danger, when in a fit of disgust and 
self-mortification the poet is liable to tear up what he has done 


19 



MAKING A POEM 


as worthless. It’s important not to succumb to this mood of 
despair since one is in no condition to evaluate whatever he 
may have accomplished up to this point. 

Therefore one should salvage those trial sheets from the 
waste-basket, and keep them available so that they may be 
reconsidered at some later time. You’ll often find, to your 
agreeable surprise, that your original impulse was sound and 
capable of further successful development. 

So far I have dealt only with breakdowns in the midst of 
creation. A different type of unfinished business occurs when 
because of lack of time or untoward circumstances one feels a 
poem coming on but is unable to devote oneself to its execution. 
If one exposes oneself generally and freely to the poetic ex- 
perience this situation is likely to happen not infrequently. 

For such occasions one should carry a notebook. The mem- 
ory cannot be trusted to protect these first tender impressions 
against withering. I make it a practice to keep notes, as a re- 
serve store of material for the future, especially for a dry 
season. 

In the summer of 1926 I was spending a vacation in the 
Italian Alps near St. Moritz. Shortly before leaving I took a 
long walk, through fields of brilliant wild flowers, along steep 
mountain paths. Soon I had given myself completely to the 
spirit of the scene, its almost unearthly serenity. The heightened 
fragrance and colors of the wild flowers in the dazzling sun- 
shine, the sounds carried from unseen distant cow-bells, the 
rarefied air itself lifted the imagination to remote heights. 
An image emerged as I walked on, transported, an image of a 
high pool, filled with sound and scent rather than with water. 
I stopped to jot down a few shorthand notes on the back of 
an envelope and returned to my hotel to get ready to leave. 


20 



UNFINISHED BUSINESS 


No time remained to develop the notes. I left directly for the 
United States to be occupied with less poetic matters. 

In the winter of 1928, two and a half years later, I came across 
the forgotten envelope in a wallet I hadn’t used since my trip 
abroad. Instantly the memory of that Alpine walk leaped up 
in all of its original clarity and brilliance. Throughout that 
long interval the poem had slept in my unconscious; it was 
asking to be written down. My brief, fragmentary notes, those 
key words, had kept it from dying. They were like the live 
coals of a banked fire, kindling the memory to recapture a 
seemingly lost hour of rapture. 

The poem, which I then developed, is called “Engadine,” 
from the name of the southern section of the Swiss Alps. Here 

In the high hills, 

In the hollows of the high Swiss hills, 

Far above the lake that sleeps 
So still, so far below. 

Lies an airier pool. 

Its springs arise in fragrant space 
Above the wild flowers. 

And not a stream that flows therein 
Flows through earth. 

Across uneven pastures. 

By the shores of the high pool. 

Lumbering cows munch bright colors. 

Trample on fragrance. 

From heavy throats of ever-hungry cows 
Soft bells dangle. 

Cows amble. 

And sound runs and ripples from the bells. 

Filling the pool. 

Gay and sunny are the waters of sound. 

In Alpine hills 
A pool is fed by bells. 


21 



MAKING A POEM 


While on the subject of taking notes and preserving them, 
my recommendation would be this: 

Write down anything and everything that may occur to you. 
Everything is raw material. The essential need is to gather 
enough of this material to enlist and arouse the imagination. 
It may be a bit of prose containing a germ, or an adjective 
which strikes your fancy, as the word “deleble” once appealed 
to me, or a line of ungrammatical shorthand, or a pair of 
unusual felicitous rhymes dangling in space. Keep accumulat- 
ing until interest lags. Put down even what to the logical mind 
may seem ridiculous or irrelevant. There’s no telling from 
what odd source the first spark may fly. 

This early stage is not the time for passing judgment on the 
value of one’s notes. To do so will only censor the free flow 
of the creative current. Only after one has gathered in enough 
stray data to suggest the possible nature and future of a poem 
has the time arrived for any conscious appraisal or assessment, 
or organization or selection. 


22 



FIVE 


Random Observations 


By temperament I seem to favor the short poem; my longest, 
“Houdini,” which runs to ninety-three lines, is a narrative and 
therefore required extended treatment in order to tell the whole 
story. Failure to write discursively may well be a limitation. I 
certainly don’t regard it as a virtue. It’s simply the way I 
operate. I suppose my experience as a writer of legal briefs 
has been an influence. Too many examples of verbosity, over- 
elaboration, citations of ten legal authorities for a proposition 
where one might well serve the purpose, have taught me the 
value of compression, the advantage of succinctness over dif- 
fusiveness. 

It isn’t necessary to assert dogmatically, as Poe has done, 
that no poem to be any good should run beyond one hundred 
lines. But I am sympathetic with his general position that the 
afflatus of a lyric, its capacity for sustained singableness, cannot 
be indefinitely prolonged. 

I believe that poetry is primarily meant to be heard and 
should first of all be addressed to the ear, and is only secondarily 
meant to be read and for the eye. My complaint against much 
contemporary verse is that the order is reversed; the emphasis 
is placed on the printed page and the appeal is pointed more 
strongly to the mind than to the senses and feelings. And since 

23 



MAKING A POEM 


thought is the dominant motivation in the latter type of poem, 
the danger exists that it may tend to the condition of prose. 

Since my first consideration is how a poem sounds rather 
than how it looks or what it means I make it a practice as I 
develop a poem to read it out loud to myself. By hearing what 
I’ve written I am better able to value each vowel and con- 
sonant and to discover and correct verbal crudities and com- 
binations that clash. At the same time I also become more 
sharply aware of the sense of the poem. It sometimes happens 
that in my eagerness to set down the sense I pay insufficient 
heed to the sounds. One shouldn’t favor sense over sound any 
more than sound over sense. They interrelate: each strengthens 
the other. 

When I start writing a poem I don’t think about form but 
let it shape itself as it grows. I don’t decide in advance whether 
it’s to rhyme or not to rhyme, or be part rhyme and part not, 
or free verse or blank verse or iambic pentameter or trochaic 
tetrameter. It frequently turns out that I write in strict rhyme 
and with matched lines of equal length. Other poems come 
out as mongrel combinations of rhymed and unrhymed, or 
with a mixture of meters. I try in all cases to follow the lead 
of my unconscious; it’s the surest guide. 

I find that in developing my lyrics the last version usually 
comes out shorter than the first; that they gain in effectiveness 
through the elimination of extraneous matter. Accordingly, I 
strive to cut out the unnecessary, merely decorative adjective, 
to avoid repeating any phrase, single word or idea which fails 
to advance the progress of the poem. Repetition is of value 
only if it can be employed for emphasis or for a bridge to 
what may follow. 

And of course one must be sure to know when to stop. One 
is often too close to the poem to realize that that final stanza 

24 



RANDOM OBSERVATIONS 


is superfluous and weakening. It may take someone else to ob- 
serve pointedly: 

“You’re so bent on nailing down your meaning that you fail 
to give the reader any room or credit for the exercise of his 
intelligence. The complete realization of a poem depends on 
the partnership between writer and reader. The reader is both 
entitled and required to share in the creation by actively using 
his imagination. If you tell him too much too literally, you 
destroy the poem’s suggestability and stifle his incentive to par- 
ticipate.” 

Since the act of creation is twofold, an offering and a re- 
sponse, the poet cannot be satisfied with merely pleasing him- 
self. If that were all, he would not need to be understood by 
anyone but himself; he could indulge his fancies at will for 
his purely private consumption. The poet fails when he fails 
to communicate. 

My ambitious aim is to make each poem incorruptible, to 
remove all matter which may harbor seeds of decay. I have 
the audacity or cherish the ideal to write not simply for the 
present hour but for posterity. Danger lies in references or in 
language which a future generation may not understand; in 
local allusions, topical situations, contemporary and ephemeral 
colloquialisms. 

Equally to be guarded against is a fondness for an outmoded 
vocabulary. The idiom of Milton or Shelley is not ours; it 
would sound artificial and antiquated in a present-day poem. 
The modern poet should draw his material from current usage 
in so far as it may serve his intentions. For current speech pos- 
sesses freshness, vitality, color and nuance; it is the natural 
medium of our age, with infinitely expressive possibilities. The 
art of Robert Frost, subtle and deceptively simple, offers a first- 
rate example of its effectiveness. 

25 



MAKING A POEM 


Similarly, the use of abstractions should as a general rule be 
avoided since they are vague in their effect and lack the power 
to convey a concrete image. Poets who content themselves with 
employing capitalized nouns like “Honor,” “Love,” and 
“Beauty” and then stop short without particularization have 
defaulted on their job, whether through sheer laziness or un- 
awareness of their esthetic responsibilities and opportunities. 

The presence in a poem of a cliche or any stereotyped meta- 
phor or simile simply means that for the moment the creative 
eye was not on the ball. When attention lags, energy recedes 
and instead of expressing oneself in a fresh, personal idiom one 
unconsciously borrows whatever may be at hand and ready- 
made by others. 

For a poem to survive it should be memorable in language, 
metaphor, and form; it should be recognizable and stamped 
with the personality of the poet. Poets as far apart as Brown- 
ing and Edna St. Vincent Millay carry this signature of identi- 
fication. 

Too many poems lack this necessary singularity and indi- 
viduality. Most magazine verse is so devoid of individual idiom 
or fresh expression that it is forgotten as soon as read. The 
current school of cerebration is marked by a similar loss of 
distinction. Its product can often be as readily assigned to one 
man as to another; all is interchangeable, unidentifiable, and 
without definite character. 


26 



SIX 


“Linda' and the Dictionary 


Emily Dickinson once said: “For several years my lexicon was 
my only companion.” I would go even further with the ad- 
mission that in my own case a dictionary is not only a com- 
panion but a collaborator which receives no public credit for 
its contributions to my poems. 

In settling down to write I find that the mere presence of 
a dictionary, preferably unabridged, on my table is an agree- 
able incitement to creative activity. This is especially true when 
I get off to a poor start and the impulse to push on is weak 
and unchannneled. I am fortified then with the assurance that 
within reach of my hand I may find needed support. 

I should perhaps explain that I compose slowly, tentatively, 
even pedestrianly. It takes many trials and false beginnings 
before I can achieve anything near the Wordsworthian state 
of recollecting emotion in tranquillity. It never happens that 
I am “inspired” to transmit full-born to paper my imaginative 
concept. I must work and build through version after version. 
It is a ceaseless round of testing, rejecting, substituting, read- 
ing what I’ve written as objectively as possible, and above all, 
of listening. In the process I employ words, phrases, rhythms 
only provisionally until I have established the desired pattern. 

27 



MAKING A POEM 


It becomes important to recognize that these provisional ex- 
periments may only approximate one’s intentions. With the 
realization that they are approximations and not finalities, I 
strive constantly for greater precision, sharper clarity. 

Here is where the value of the dictionary comes in. It serves 
as a challenge to accuracy of statement; it invites and induces, 
by its revealing and refining definitions, its colorful synonyms 
of equivalents, a desire for further creative exploration. It 
thereby arouses the imagination to greater industry in its 
progress toward the ultimate esthetic expression, the finished 
artifact. 

But beyond these incidental pilferings from the dictionary, 
sufficient in themselves to justify my acknowledgment of its 
role as collaborating partner, I have literally and liberally 
plagiarized entire phrases, pregnant with invention and illu- 
mination when incorporated in specific poems. 

This brings me to the “Linda” part of the title of this chapter. 
It refers to a poem which I called “A Song for Linda,” and 
which appeared originally in the University of Kansas City 
Review. Here is the poem. Whatever its merits, it serves as an 
example of the value I place on the dictionary as an aid to 
the creative process: 

A Song for Linda 

Linda lives in the welkin, 

Linda, ten months old. 

Snug in a snowy cloud cocoon, 

Dreaming her warm, sweet milk in. 

In Linda’s vault of heaven 
There’s neither time nor space. 

Neither morn nor even, 

Only blessed grace. 

28 



“linda” and the dictionary 

All innocence, she babbles 
Her syllables of bliss, 

In fragrant airs she dabbles 
Within her chrysalis. 

Within her microcosm. 

So far, so high, so rare. 

No evil leaps the chasm 
From our polluted star. 

Linda, there in the welkin, 

Coos in her snug cocoon — 

Her safe cocoon, and silken. 

Dreaming her milk in. 

This is how the poem came to be. I started out by watching 
my infant granddaughter as, half asleep, she guzzled her 
bottle. The operation fascinated me as I witnessed its repeti- 
tion day after day. It called for definition in a germinating 
phrase. What the baby seemed to be doing was not so much 
drinking, as, rather, dreaming her milk in.” That feeling be- 
came the motif for the poem. 

It was not only an odd feeling, it was an odd phrase and 
charged with potential energy. The feminine line-ending, 
“milk in,” led to a search for rhymes; the only matchings I 
could discover were “silken” and “welkin.” Now, “welkin” at 
once caught fire, for welkin is not a mundane locale, but a 
place, so to speak, out of this world, a place where the child 
had her habitat and was breathing her angelic life. 

Vaguely I associated welkin with the upper ether, a cloudy 
area unknown to me except in the expression: “Let the welkin 
ring.” Curiosity for further light on the word, perhaps a 
“hunch,” drew me to the dictionary to learn more about 
welkin. To my delight and astonishment I found it described 


29 



MAKING A POEM 


as "the vault of heaven” a strikingly poetic phrase, and exactly 
right to further the mood and spirit of the theme. 

I borrowed it promptly. It came at a moment when my 
confidence was deserting me; it strengthened the current of 
my faith in the basic motif to such a degree that its potency 
carried me along to deeper, more fertile reflection. It stretched 
my imaginative resources to the pitch where I was able to 
sustain the mood of the poem and to complete it without loss 
or diminution of its initial incentive. 

In such ways as this the dictionary has come to mean for 
me not a dry repository of prosaic words but a living treasury 
of poetry. 


30 



SEVEN 


How ''Humbly, Wildly” Was Born 

* 


Humbly, Wildly 

Water boils on the flame, 

For use, for need; 

Water boils in the flume, 

A torrent freed. 

Element bound in a pot, 

Humbly to serve; 

Current of passion untamed, 

Crashing to curve. 

My wife and I had settled at a ranch on a fork of the Platte 
River, in Colorado. The stream raced and roared and tumbled 
down a canyon. As I walked along an abandoned railroad bed 
following its course, I noticed the white water; it was “boil- 
ing.” “Boiling” was the word that held the germ of a poem. 
It teased me. Soon I found myself reflecting that “boiling” 
could result either from the application of heat or of power. 
If the latter, boiling could be cold, even icy. In short there were 
at least two kinds of boiling. I was struck with the contrast and 
began to mull over it. One boils water on a stove, a range, a 
hearth, in a vessel, a pan, a kettle, a pot. You confine and 
control it for your own purposes. You enslave it, but in a 
worthy domestic cause, to cook your food, for instance. 


31 



MAKING A POEM 


That was one way of looking at boiling. But how different 
the cosmic boiling of a cataract, a Niagara! The contrast sharp- 
ened, as the concept took more definite shape. 

I might note, at this point, my general state, both physical 
and psychological. The previous three weeks had drained my 
energies — winding up my professional ties in New York, run- 
ning a class-reunion celebration at Columbia University, flying 
to Kansas City to give some talks at the Writers’ Workshop, 
plus a poetry reading at Denver University, and the delightful 
though exhausting demands of two insistent grandchildren. 
Add to this the need of acclimatizing myself to an altitude of 
8,000 feet. I was thoroughly depleted to the point of groggi- 
ness, apparently in no state to summon creative resources thus 
deeply submerged. 

However, long experience has taught me that out of seeming 
drought, far below the surface there lie hidden springs avail- 
able for tapping, awaiting an invitation. I recognized, even in 
my unpropitious condition, the acquisition of two suggestive 
leads, one, that boiling can be both hot and cold, and two, 
that water is both responsible and irresponsible. If you look at 
these “discoveries” in critical cold blood, they will of course 
seem obvious and utterly commonplace. On the critical level 
that would be true; on the creative level, however, that would 
be untrue, since nothing is so obvious or commonplace that it 
cannot be utilized for creative material. It is in the subsequent 
process that the material is lifted out of the obvious and com- 
monplace to a new, vital, and singular form. 

So, in order to get something concrete down, however banal, 
I wrote on the back of an envelope, as I walked: 

Water boils in a pot, 

Water boils in the stream 


32 



HOW “humbly, wildly” was born 

I also set down a few stray, disconnected words for possible 
future use: “Icy, domestic, tame, wild, unbridled, freedom, 
electricity.” Certainly a feeble, unpromising start. 

My next venture was to find a more evocative word than 
“stream” for the thunderous force behind the icy boiling. I 
chose “flume” both for meaning and for euphony. Having 
picked “flume,” my mind darted to “flame,” a near-rhyme. 
Revising I wrote down: 

Water boils on the flame, 

Water boils in the flume. 

These lines, separately, satisfied me for the moment; how- 
ever, I didn’t care for them as a couplet. 

This was about all I succeeded in accomplishing that first 
day. It seemed so puny that my impulse was to forget the 
whole business and angle in other waters. But too much of the 
theme had become embedded in my consciousness to be so 
readily dislodged. I had won the preliminary skirmish with 
my evil spirit, that critical man ever ready to disparage such 
tentative fumblings. 

Next day, partly refreshed, I returned to the battle. The first 
thing was to write down the two lines once more; to me the 
mere act of writing, of using a lead pencil (as I am doing as 
I write these words), acts as a release. I suppose I am on the 
friendliest terms with myself and with the world when the 
words flow along the lines and mount to pages. 

Rereading the two lines, I noted two things, first that I had 
lost the specific “pot” object of the earliest notation, and sec- 
ond, that I hadn’t begun to describe the contrast between the 
two activities, their functions, their social or amoral charac- 
teristics, etc. Accordingly I began to particularize thus: 

33 



MAKING A POEM 


Water boils on the flame, 

For use, for need; 

And then, without much hesitation: 

Water boils in the flume, 

A torrent freed. 

Thus ended the second day. The actual writing time so far 
probably ran to less than two hours, but the mental and emo- 
tional involvement had shut out all other considerations. My 
satisfaction consisted in the knowledge that I had won my sec- 
ond bout with my censor; I had survived his assaults (for two 
days) and had actually set down four lines! 

As the third day came around, with these four lines as a 
body or at least part of a body, I had acquired a structure 
capable of development. These lines I carried with me in my 
head as I walked over to the main camp for breakfast. I car- 
ried them back on my return, and with pad and pencil sat 
down on our cabin porch looking out on a more placid stretch 
of the river. Between the river and the porch lay a meadow 
over which many different birds were disporting. Soon I found 
myself absorbed in their enterprises, and in particular noted 
the hop-hop-hop of a certain small bird. That hop-hop-hop 
was another device of my devil, this time more tempter than 
censor, to divert me from my appointed project. I had begun 
to construct a fantasy that poetry is the language and rhythm 
for birds, and that prose is for cows. Indeed I may still write 
that poem. I’ll tuck away the line: Prose is for cows. 

Fortunately, that bit of play served to stimulate me for my 
job. I was soon ready for line 5: 

Element, bound in a pot. 

34 



HOW “humbly, wildly” was born 

At first I had written “trapped” for “bound,” but dismissed 
it as possibly too melodramatic. At least that was my decision, 
rightly or wrongly. Then I reflected on the meaning of water 
boiling in a pot; it signified service. How to serve.? “Tamely”.? 
But that seemed unjust, with a sneery innuendo. “Humbly”.? 
Yes, doing its simple duty with quiet dignity. So: 

Element, bound in a pot, 

Humbly to serve. 

Up to this point there were six lines. The ultimate structure 
was evolving; two sets of complementary couplets would prob- 
ably take in all I might want to say. Accordingly I concluded 
that this was to be an eight-line poem, spare and compact. 
Unwittingly I had set myself a difficult problem. “Serve” has 
few rhymes to go with it : “swerve,” “verve,” “nerve,” “curve.” 
I refused to change “serve” for a rhyme less troublesome, since 
the idea of service was basic to the poem. Of the choice left 
only “curve” seemed to contain the necessary potential for a 
suitable climactic finale. But I had to tread warily to avoid an 
artificial or strained or inept image — in short, a dud. 

I had been mentally shaping line 8, before tackling line 7. 
Its opposite would of course be line 5: 

Element bound in a pot. 

Line 7 would have to picture a force unbridled, reckless, feck- 
less. Line 7 must be in service not to the household gods but 
to Dionysus. With this concept in mind and within the limi- 
tations and exactions of a line of at most seven syllables and 
three main stresses, I perpetrated: 

Power and passion untamed, 

35 



MAKING A POEM 


and, thinkin g of the course and shape of a waterfall, followed 

with: ^ 

Carving a curve. 

Writing down these eight lines, and reading them aloud to 
myself for melody and the true harmony between vowels and 
consonants, I fell into the error of being too easily pleased with 
the result. And after picking “Humbly, Wildly” as the title 
and again testing each word for sense as well as for sound, I 
felt sure that the poem was in a shape defying revision. 

In this state of self-congratulation I saw my wife advancing 
over the field toward the cabin. My wife * needs to be ex- 
plained. She is a person essentially intuitive to a rare degree, 
who functions primarily through sensory and feeling im- 
pressions. A painter and a teacher of painting, she nonetheless 
has a subtle appreciation of all forms of art; she is especially 
drawn to poetry. To test a poem she applies her sharp intui- 
tions rather than any technical prosodic equipment or literary 
erudition. Her senses report to her what’s right or wrong. 

Over the years we’ve developed a technique for testing out 
my poems, a technique involving awareness by each of the 
other’s psychology, my innate stubbornness about changing a 
word or line unless convinced by an intelligible argument, her 
inability as a rule to advance intelligible arguments, but rather 
her reliance on some nonmental process for divining the soft 
spots. I should call her approach one of criticism by esthetic 
instinct. As time goes on my openness to comment has grown 
concurrently with her increasing clarity. The experience has 
been mutually enriching. 

“I’ve produced young,” I announced with quiet triumph, 
handing her the paper as she climbed the wooden steps. 

* Died April 30, 1952. 


36 



HOW “humbly, wildly” was born 

She read slowly, reread, then: 

“I think it’s fine, but there’s something lacking in the last 
two lines. I haven’t been able to put my finger definitely on 
what bothers me, but I know it’s in those two lines. The rest 
is tops.” 

She read it again, thoughtfully, searchingly, and, this time, 
analytically. “I think I’ve got hold of something. The poem 
expresses duality in pairs, but you fall down on the last pair. 
You haven’t made a complete correspondence with ‘Element 
bound in a pot.’ It trails off rather than rises to a climax. You 
haven’t expressed the contrast clearly. ‘Power and passion’ are 
too abstract. I haven’t anything specific to suggest, but that in 
general’s my first objection.” 

I didn’t at all take kindly to the idea. In fact I dismissed it 
with curt finality. 

“You’re treating it too literally. Something must be left to 
the reader’s imagination. If people can’t get it,” I went on 
warmly, “that’s just their hard luck. It’s all right as it stands.” 

“Rubbish and rationalization,” she shot back. “You sound 
like W.; when a person can’t make head or tail of his obscur- 
ities and tells him so, he answers smugly with ‘Sorry, you can’t 
get it.’” 

That thrust made me laugh and thereby restored my good 
temper and to a degree my good sense as well. 

Pondering the matter I came up with: “Current of passion 
untamed.” 

“That’s splendid,” my wife said. “ ‘Current’ parallels ‘ele- 
ment’ and carries out the pairs of opposites throughout the 
poem. 

“Now there’s only one soft spot left. I don’t like the word 
‘carving’; it’s inadequate. ‘Carving’ is too narrow, suggests one 

37 



MAKING A POEM 


dimension. ‘Carving’ is for roast beef. What’s needed is some- 
thing more terrific, more dynamic.” 

Despite this onslaught I wasn’t in the mood to surrender. 
On the contrary I argued stoutly:. 

“ ‘Carving a curve’ expresses for me the arc of a waterfall. 
And besides, there’s the matter of alliteration. It makes for 
agreeable euphony, which is especially important at the end 
of a poem.” 

“I’m afraid you’re not practicing what you preach,” she fired 
back. “You always insist on the search for the one and only 
right word. You’ve fallen in love with ‘carving’ because of its 
sound rather than its sense. You’ll have to do better than that.” 

We persisted in thrashing the thing out, and as we did so 
the force of her comments began to sink in and have meaning. 
Regretfully, almost painfully, I said good-by to “carving” for 
which I had developed an overdeep attachment. In its place, I 
tried out “leaping,” “flinging,” “dashing,” before deciding on 
“crashing.” It still gave me my desired alliteration and ends 
the poem on an emphatic crescendo. 

“How about ‘crashing’.?” I diffidently ventured. 

“Swell,” she answered, “that really does it. Isn’t it great the 
way something fruitful always happens out of these give-and- 
takes.?” 

I acknowledged that she was the ideal collaborator. 


38 



EIGHT 


Concerning '‘Ho\inson’* 


Hokinson 

Her subject womankind, her special model 
A dowager in danger of a waddle, 

That matron of a fairly ripe and round age 
Whose inausterity pays off in poundage. 

Hers was the art that launched a thousand hips 
And firmly tucked the bulge beneath the girdle, 

That picked those silly hats on shopping trips, 

Those foolish frocks that scaled the social hurdle; 

And hers the wit that caught the fatuous unction 
Of Madam Chairman at some garden function 
Or registered the embarrassing inanities 
Of females, willing victims of their vanities. 

Her pencil, poised in mischief, camera-candid. 

Scored cleaner hits than ever any man did. 

And gentler, too, the satire and the mockery 

More kind than Swift, more frolicsome than Thackeray, 

As if to say, “One never can be tellin’; 

Yes, there but for the grace of God, goes Helen.” 

The impulse that produced “Hokinson” came from an en- 
tirely different quarter from that which conceived a poem like 

39 



MAKING A POEM 


“Humbly, Wildly.” That was essentially lyrical; it grew out 
of random seeds blown by winds of intuition. 

“Hokinson,” on the contrary, proceeded from the mind. The 
operation, the performance, was primarily mental. By that 
statement of course I don’t mean to suggest that the writing 
was synthetic and unemotional. What I do mean is that whereas 
with the lyric I started out with a single word or a feeling for 
a particular rhythm, and built until it created its own content 
and contour, with “Hokinson” I knew what I was about from 
the very beginning. I started with a definite subject, to wit, a 
congenial personality I had never met except on the pages of 
The New Yorker. 

But why, it may be asked, choose Helen Hokinson from all 
the possible others.? Because, I suppose, without having been 
conscious of the fact, the cumulative effect of her drawings 
over the years had registered appealingly and deeply ; they had 
fed and fortified a kindred outlook on the foibles of humanity. 
“What fools these mortals be,” cried Puck in A Midsummer 
Night’s Dream. Hokinson never viewed her creatures that 
harshly. The stroke of her pencil carried both impishness and 
fellow-feeling, even, perhaps, pity. She regarded mankind, 
or rather womankind — I don’t recall any drawing of a man — 
with philosophic amusement. Her irony was gentle; emotion- 
ally it had no trace of the sardonic, of the savage indignation 
of a Swift or a Goya. 

On November i, 1949, Helen Hokinson, at the height of her 
powers, was dashed to death in an airplane crash. As I read 
the news I identified with the crash. Her loss was personal; 
something rare, sustaining, and vital had without warning 
been expunged from the world and from my life. 

I have just said that the poem “Hokinson” proceeded from 
the mind. I refer to the construction, the craftsmanship, the 

40 



CONCERNING “hOKINSON” 

techniques, the build-up around a set theme. It’s obvious that 
its origin, its promptings, its insistence on being written, ema- 
nated from the stored, cumulative impact of over twenty years 
on my consciousness. In a sense not wide of the truth it may 
be stated that the poem was over twenty years in the making. 
But it took a shock, an explosion, to deliver it from the depths 
to the daylight. 

On November 2, 1949, I read of the tragedy and at once 
decided to attempt a poem. Because of my professional work 
in a law office, I couldn’t come to grips with it until the week 
end, alone, at leisure and in the country. Over that week end 
I finished it. It appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature, 
after having been rejected by two other national magazines on 
the sole alleged ground that their make-up commitments pre- 
vented its use for several months. Presumably the editors felt 
that Hokinson, a name as potent as Babbitt in the social his- 
tory of our times, would be forgotten by then. 

I first set to work to establish the right mood for the poem. I 
knew what it certainly should not be. It should not be funereal; 
it should not be solemn. As to form I rejected the sonnet as 
conducive to solemnity and possibly stuffiness. I was averse to 
any tone of conventional eulogy or of elegy. I didn’t think 
Hokinson would be pleased with that sort of tribute. From 
such negatives as these I proceeded to consider more positively 
what might have appealed to Hokinson; it seemed best to 
attempt to project the spirit of Hokinson in verse. What was 
that spirit? To hold the mirror up to nature, to puncture folly 
playfully yet pointedly, to turn the spotlight on feminine frailty 
in its various aspects of vanity, the desire to appear youthful 
beyond one’s advancing years, the need to be in the latest 
fashion no matter how incongruous. And all in the spirit of 
quiet levity. Above all things one should be neither caustic 


41 



MAKING A POEM 


nor moralistic, nor superior. By their deeds, by their behavior, 
let them convict themselves. 

With these considerations uppermost in my mind and now 
operating actively, I eagerly prepared for the actual writing. 
Following my custom, like an artist who squeezes blobs of 
color on his palette preparatory to composition, I scattered a 
mass of words over the page, the first words to enter my head, 
regardless of sense or of relevance, my preliminary blobs of 
color. 

I’ve retained that earliest page which preceded the first 
sketch, and now reproduce, without editing, much of the ma- 
terial spread out thereon: outrageous hats the silly hat 
garden clubs meetings get-togethers Mme. chairman mil- 
liners civic conclaves couturieres victims of their vanities 
feminine matrons insanities inanities sartorial atrocities 
avoirdupois embonpoint nit-wit brain feather-brain hare- 
brain look upon her like again bondage to rolls of surplus 
poundage foibles follies Hokinson — unfailing subject of her 
wit and art Alas! untimely! ridiculous mischief mockery 
deft and gentle — ^pencil deftly — not unkindly Gentle amuse- 
ment rather than contour torso bulge divulge girdle When 
shall we look upon her like again.? The bulge within the gir- 
dle They look at themselves in the mirror. But see only the 
way they looked when young. 

If you’ll turn back and examine the finished poem at the 
head of this account you’ll readily see how many of the random 
ideas and haphazard words and phrases found their way into 
the final version, and how many disappeared forthwith. Of the 
latter note “Look upon her like again” and “Alas! Untimely!” 
the feeling is sentimental, falsetto, utterly wrong. OUT! 

You will also note, as I was quick to do, that in these short- 
hand jottings lay the groundwork for the ultimate composi- 

42 



CONCERNING “hOKINSON” 

tion and that by putting down such items as “outrageous hats,” 
“garden clubs,” “surplus poundage,” “the bulge within the 
girdle” I was conjuring up in my mind’s eye the well-known 
Hokinson characters and situations of a thousand drawings. 
It was settled then and there that so far as I was concerned, the 
most fitting way to pay homage to Hokinson was to reproduce 
her “girls” in verse. 

That first page reveals further signs pointing to the technical 
shape as well as to the subject matter of the future poem; for 
instance, the problem of rhyme. You will observe the appear- 
ance of such words as “vanities,” “insanities,” “inanities,” “atroc- 
ities,” “poundage,” “girdle.” Plainly none of these words would 
be seemly in any traditional threnody. They suggest the op- 
posite of lugubriousness; they are not the prescribed raiment 
for mourning. Apparently my mind from the outset was travel- 
ing toward the gaiety and playfulness of the lady who was my 
subject. 

A rhyme with “bondage” would be of two syllables, with the 
accent on the first; the textbooks call this a feminine rhyme, 
as distinguished from such one-syllable, robust, masculine 
rhymes as “doom” and “gloom.” Feminine rhymes are most 
frequently employed in light verse; they lend themselves to 
odd, unexpected matings such as “poundage” and “round 
age,” and make for suppleness. The same effect is augmented 
with rhymes of three syllables like “vanities” and “inanities.” 
The lines were thus destined to be written with feminine 
rhyme-endings. 

Another clue to be found in that hodge-podge of loose words 
anticipates an attitude or point of view. “Victims of their van- 
ities,” “gentle amusement.” These phrases were later to set 
what might be termed the critical tone toward the ladies. Like 
Helen’s drawings, the poem was to be free of condemnation 

43 



MAKING A POEM 


or accusation; at most the rebuke was to be mild and implied 
from the situation. Accordingly “insanities” was a word to be 
avoided as too violent. “Nit-wit brain” was far too sharp. I 
might think these misguided matrons had nit-wit brains, but 
I mustn’t say so, if I were to remain faithful to the temper of 
the drawings and the spirit of their creator. I must never attack. 

With these preliminaries fairly established I then turned to 
the actual composition and began to ask myself questions. 
What was her subject matter? How was it circumscribed? The 
answer to the first came promptly: Womankind. But what 
variety of womankind ? What type, what special model ? Defi- 
nitely, a middle-aged, overweight, fatuous matron, invariably 
ridiculous as to choice of clothes and hats and not too bright as 
chairman of a fashionable function. This about covered the 
Hokinson range and area of observation. 

My first line easily shaped itself: 

Her subject womankind, her special model. 

That was as far as I got; I was suspended in mid-air with the 
dangling word “model.” I needed to find a fitting mate for it. 
As luck would have it in flew “waddle,” exactly what was re- 
quired to spur me on. Overstuffed, nondieting matrons are in 
danger of acquiring a waddle. So, working backward, I filled 
in with: 

A dowager in danger of a waddle. 

That line satisfied, with its slow pace of middle age, and its 
verbal felicities, if I may say so, of “dowager” and “danger,” 
the d& and the soft gers. 

To amplify the portrait I seized on “poundage,” and quite 
imashamed yoked it with “round age.” With these two guide- 
posts, after a bit of experimentation, I came through with: 

44 



CONCERNING “hOKINSON” 

That matron of a fairly ripe and round age 
Whose inausterity pays off in poundage. 

Now at least I had achieved an acceptable first stanza; it 
sounded right both in tone and in texture. I could look ahead 
with gathering confidence; I was definitely on my way. 

One consideration must never be lost sight of, the dual aspect 
of the poem. I must remember first and always to celebrate 
Hokinson herself, her art and her wit. Secondly I must ex- 
emplify both her art and her wit through appropriate illustra- 
tions. Such was to be the pattern. 

Following the order of the opening stanza, I began stanza 
2 with attention on the artist as I wrote down: 

And hers the art that launched a thousand hips. 

It’s not for me to decide whether I was justified in profaning 
Marlowe’s superb line; I can only say that I chose the gamble. 
It may have offended some readers, but so far as I know, it was 
generally received without hostility. 

“Hips” of course brought up “girdle,” as a natural. And so 
line 2 of stanza 2 became: 

And firmly tucked the bulge beneath the girdle. 

I tested both “stowed” and “tucked,” finally choosing the lat- 
ter as an internal rhyme for “picked” which was to fit into 
line 3. “Hips” was to be the only masculine line-ending in the 
whole poem. I rhymed it with “trips,” thus : 

That picked those silly hats on shopping trips. 

At first I’d written “purchases” for “silly hats,” but substituted 
the latter as more specific and accordingly more reminiscent 
of the Hokinson sketches. Similarly the “silly hats” recalled 
“foolish frocks.” 


45 



MAKING A POEM 


At this point I struck a snag. To find a passable rhyme for 
“girdle” was a tough assignment, for there were only two 
words possible, “hurdle” and “curdle.” 

My trial line ran: 

Those foolish frocks that made the blood-stream curdle. 

Plainly that would never do — ^far-fetched, overemphatic, lugged 
in for the rhyme. I was left with “hurdle” and after a struggle, 
produced : 

Those foolish frocks that scaled the social hurdle. 

This line seemed more in character; at any rate, it was the 
best I could do in the narrow circumstances. The second stanza 
was thus completed. 

Adhering to my plan, I next dealt with die artist’s wit, and 
made many versions of the third stanza. It suffices to reproduce 
only one: 

And hers the wit to catch the vacuous unction 
Of Madam Chairman at some civic function, 

And register the hundred-and-one inanities 
Of ladies who are victims of their vanities 

I toned this up as follows: Changed “vacuous” to “fatuous”; 
“civic” to “garden”; “hundred-and-one” to “embarrassing”; 
“ladies who are victims” to “females, willing victims.” The 
characterizations were heightened through sharper, closer ob- 
servation. 

Now I had composed three four-line stanzas, having selected 
most of the salient features of Helen’s “girls.” It seemed about 
time to move on to a climax and conclusion, which should sum 
up in a few phrases my estimate of the artist and give fitting 
expression to the warmth of my admiration. The last six lines 

46 



CONCERNING “hOKINSOn” 

accordingly formed a combination of critical evaluation and 
praise. 

The idea for the concluding couplet really came from Helen 
herself. In an article appearing shortly before her death in 
which she discussed her attitude toward her work I remem- 
bered her saying in effect that she was no different from or 
better than any of her “girls.” What I had retained was the 
impression of a completely cheerful soul, without a trace of 
superiority or malice, and quite as ready to laugh at herself 
as at the world. With this image in my mind it seemed in- 
evitable that the end should read: 

“Yes, there, but for the grace of God, goes Helen.” 

To the foregoing account a brief postscript should perhaps 
be added. In certain quarters the tone of the poem was resented 
as flippant, irreverent, and therefore lacking in good taste. I 
can understand that my poem may offend persons brought up 
to assume a certain attitude in the presence of death. I can only 
say that for me it is unnatural to adopt a standard tone under 
such circumstances, to mute one’s voice and wear an artificial 
expression to comply with some conventional notion of what 
constitutes proper behavior. Truly, proper behavior it seems to 
me flows from the sincerity of one’s feelings, from one’s innate 
sense of decency and delicacy. It is individual, not collective. 

I can only hope that the comment of a friend may give the 
right answer. He said : 

“I think Helen would have enjoyed it.” 


47 



NINE 


Slow Germination 


In the two preceding articles, “How ‘Humbly, Wildly’ Was 
Born” and “Concerning ‘Hokinson,’ ” I attempted to illustrate 
two different approaches to the composition of lyrical verse, 
the intuitive and the deliberate. I explained how in “Humbly, 
Wildly” the sight of plunging, white water suggested the word 
“boiling”; how the word then took hold and aroused me to 
speculate until it finally generated the necessary temperature 
to start me on the poem. The intuitive experience came sharp, 
moved swiftly to a consummation. 

In the piece on “Hokinson,” I explained how quite in con- 
trast I began with a chosen subject and proceeded to build 
consciously and primarily upon that foundation. “Hokinson” 
grew rationally, in the manner of sonnet-writing. “Humbly, 
Wildly” grew irrationally from the impact of a random word. 

Under the caption “Poems That Refuse To Be Written,” I 
once listed a group of false starts, where I had succeeded in 
producing an inviting line or couplet but was unable to sum- 
mon the necessary vigor to move on further. These beginnings 
were both intuitive and conscious. Yet no matter how often I 
might return to pick up the thread, my imagination would 
balk. For the time being at least I conceded defeat. 

On the other hand one becomes involved with poems that 

48 



SLOW GERMINATION 


insist on being written eventually. It may take a long time, 
even years, before one finally surrenders and becomes vic- 
torious through the surrender. There are many causes for this 
obstinacy, but perhaps the most common cause is that the orig- 
inal impulse though recognized lies too deep in the uncon- 
scious to be dredged up. One has the feeling that though the 
climate is right the time is not yet ripe; one lacks that involve- 
ment with the material which will either evoke an intuitive 
kindling hint or lift a definite theme to consciousness. 

The condition is one of slow, delayed immersion. 

I call to mind one particular case which continued to nag 
me vaguely but never with the needed stimulation. The hour 
was always midnight; the prod would always come from the 
striking of an old-fashioned bedroom clock. And my response, 
such as it was, would issue out of a disturbed wakefulness. 
Restlessly I would toss in anticipation of those twelve fateful 
strokes. At times they would carry ominous overtones, but the 
nature of the communication I was unable to fathom. Ominous 
or otherwise, I nevertheless detected a significance in its in- 
creasing attraction and hold on me. The recurrent drop of 
twelve identical equipoised tones began to register as a fixed 
pattern. 

Such was the first slight but encouraging token of possible 
delivery from my stubborn torpor. It had produced a recog- 
nizable image. 

The image, whether it be sensory, emotional, or mental, is 
the emerging seed in the mystery of creation. It may either 
progress to fertility or lose its life through lack of nourishment. 
The outcome depends on the intensity of its impress, its capac- 
ity for suggestion and reflection. 

In the present case my original image was strong enough to 
enlist my attention and carry me on a step further. I now pro- 

49 



MAKING A POEM 


cecded to reconsider the midnight strokes; this time they came 
to me separately instead of in a general pattern. As each one 
was released it took on a globular shape with a dense content. 
I thought of a series of balls regularly falling, but without 
satisfaction in the image. Still, the qualities of rotundity and 
density continued to engage me. Then, without warning, like 
a conjuror’s trick, the twelve balls turned swiftly into twelve 
apples; they dropped naturally, not from undefined space but 
from a flourishing tree. 

So it happened that what had originally been an ordinary 
bedroom clock was magically and metaphysically transformed 
into the tree of time. 

“The tree of time”! The phrase both verbally and as a meta- 
phor struck me as usable, as a clear manifestation of the poetic 
process in operation. It moved me to reflection, to consider 
psychologically the nature of this strange fruit. So doing, I let 
my mind and my feelings go back and relive those many mid- 
nights of emotional disturbance. 

What did they signify? The dominant prevailing feeling 
had been one of distress and self-accusation. I had been uncon- 
sciously reproaching myself for things undone which should 
have been done, for opportunities lost and never to be retrieved. 
In brief I had been bewailing the fact that time in its subtle 
passage and flight had eluded and circumvented me. Time had 
been my triumphant antagonist. 

Deeply moved by this discovery I concluded that I had 
been obsessed by a sense of defeat and that the moment had 
arrived when I must come to grips with time and no longer 
be its slave. How to overcome its beguilement was the problem. 

The decision led me to re-examine the fruit image and the 
midnight harvest. My previous turn of mind had been negative, 
self-destructive. I must loosen its seductive grip. The adjective 


50 



SLOW GERMINATION 


“seductive” furnished a clue. It warned me of the true nature 
of the situation. The fruit I had been picturing was not sound 
but unwholesome. It was really “Dead Sea” fruit. Time, as I 
had contemplated it, instead of giving me sustenance from 
its tree had actually fed me poison, the poison of despair. 

At last there was revealed to me the character of my predica- 
ment, and with its revelation came a release of energy which 
ultimately found the following expression: 

A Harvest to Seduce 

Upon the tree of time 
The fruit looms high, 

The fruit so fair to pluck. 

The hour’s late and black. 

The time-tree quivers. 

Loosens and delivers 
The midnight crop. 

Twelve drop, 

A harvest to seduce, 

Lacking joy or juice. 

Beware the vain lament, 

The hunger for what’s spent. 

This is dead-sea fruit 
And ashes to the taste. 

Quash it with your foot. 

What is past is past. 


51 



TEN 


The Story of ‘^Bed-Time Story” 


Bed-Time Story 

Once there was a spaniel 
By the name of Daniel, 

And a pig, 

Sig, 

And a pussy, 

Gussie — 

She chased a mouse, 

Klaus; 

And a squirrel, 

Errol, 

And a white she-bear, 

Claire, 

And a Scotch lion, 

Ian, 

And a very fierce shark, 

Mark. 

You’ll agree, my dear, 

They were rather a queer 
Assortment 

Of temperament and deportment. 

And yet. 

My pet. 

In spite of their diversities 
And perversities 


52 



THE STORY OF “bED-TIME STORy” 

Both zoological 
And ideological, 

They all gathered together 
One day, when the weather 
Was especially frightful, and decided 
It wasn’t safe to stay divided 
Any longer, and that they should. 

For their common good 

(Rather than risk another calamity), 

Try amity. 

And that’s the way there began to dawn a 
Plan they christened United Fauna. 


“And did they live happily ever after, Daddy?” 

“I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow. Good night, dear.” 

One often achieves unexpected results from a mere jingle. 
Several mornings running I found myself afflicted, as I woke 
up, with the childish rhyme 

Once there was a spaniel 

By the name of Daniel. 

It was just one of those annoying things you pick up like a 
tack when you walk barefooted. But unlike the tack it was not 
so easily extracted; it had evidently become embedded for the 
duration. 

The rhyme was no less childish than my mood. Before long 
I started playing around with other animals. Following Daniel, 
and with the eagerness of a five-year-old, I continued: 

And a pig, 

Sig, 

And a pussy, 

Gussie — 

She chased a mouse, 

Klaus; 


53 



MAKING A POEM 


And a squirrel, 

Errol, 

And a white she-bear, 

Claire, 

And a Scotch lion, 

Ian, 

And a very fierce shark, 

Mark. 

This outburst just about satisfied my appetite for further 
exploration. What amused me about the performance was its 
element of free association; it reminded me of the kind of 
improvisation a parent might string out for a sleepy child de- 
manding one last story before being tucked in for the night; 
it would probably have no ending but would trail off incon- 
clusively, as the eyes closed and consciousness faded. It was the 
beginning of a bed-time story; that was what I christened it. 

A word or so about the meter. The method of free associa- 
tion induced equal freedom in rhythmic structure. The erratic 
choice of the animals, the lack of constraint from any formal 
scheme, the utter unpredictability and inconsequence of what 
might be coming next, all made for novelty and freshness of 
form. I dared use as complete lines such monosyllables as 
“Sig,” “Klaus,” “Claire,” and “Mark,” to produce an abrupt 
staccato effect. 

Up to this point, therefore, the doggerel was devoid of seri- 
ous meaning. That there might evolve some deliberate sense 
first dawned on me as my mind picked up the “white she-bear.” 
It suggested Russia. The suggestion of one country spread to 
the other countries (the “Scotch lion,” “Klaus”), not by any 
close or exact analogy but as a general picture of a world fam- 
ily of animals, ferocious and harmless, majestic and insignifi- 
cant, without central harmony or relationship. 

54 



THE STORY OF “bED-TIME STORy” 

I began to think in terms of fable or allegory, with an under- 
current of irony, and thus emerged from the atmosphere of 
innocence into that of sophistication. Continuing to follow 
the original pattern — “my dear,” “my pet” — I departed from 
infant simplicity of speech to the adult vocabulary of “tempera- 
ment and deportment,” “diversities and perversities both zoo- 
logical and ideological.” By this time the poem had definitely 
become one about the United Nations and the world conditions 
which had demanded its establishment. It required little effort 
to fill in the outline; the details appear in the third stanza. 

Now I was faced with the task of coming through with an 
effective ending. I couldn’t mention the United Nations as 
such, for that would have destroyed the allegory. Aesop and 
La Fontaine had taught me that the technique of allegory or 
fable was approach by indirection. What, therefore, must one 
substitute for “United Nations” ? The poem was about animals 
and animals are fauna. This congress or convocation of the 
animals was to be a meeting of fauna as a body for the sake 
of union. It must adopt an official name. Could there be any 
alternative to “United Fauna”.? On these two words I ended 
the poem. 

“Bed-Time Story” is a poem that found its punch line at the 
very finish; it grew out of the situation as it developed. In this 
respect the poem differs fundamentally in origin and con- 
struction from those which start from a tempting last line 
and build up hindwise. 

Technically I suppose I might have properly stopped here. 
A footnote, however, seemed to be called for, even if in prose, 
and if only to hint that civilization progresses not through the 
formation of institutions but through the spirit which animates 
them*. 

Besides, I wanted to return to the blissful state of my opening. 



ELEVEN 


Climate of the Heart 


It frequently happens that the psyche, which has a life of its 
own, finds itself in opposition to what might be expected of 
it in one’s contemplation of natural phenomena or in one’s 
feelings for a given situation. 

The psyche not only has a life of its own but is a law unto 
itself. It represents rebellion against convention, defies the 
attitudes and habits of thinking and feeling imposed by so- 
ciety, and flies a bright flag to symbolize its declaration of 
independence. 

Take for example the picture of a day in spring. Overhead 
the sky hangs in cloudless blue purity. The sunlight sheds a 
gentle radiance over the green landscape. Breezes play softly 
over fresh leaves and gay flowers. The scene, one might as- 
sume, would impart its spirit of serenity to the observer. It 
will succeed in doing so, however, only if his inward state 
happens to coincide with the harmony of nature. Otherwise 
the bland invitation will be rejected, and the contrast between 
the joyous visible world and the dark mood of the beholder 
will only intensify a sense of dejection. Similarly the sight of a 
parade — the uniformed marchers, the colored banners, the glad 
music of the bands, may elicit only sadness from the breast of 
the spectator on the curb. 


56 



CLIMATE OF THE HEART 


On the other hand the spectacle of a devastating storm, of 
the elements in tumult, may serve as a release to a similar dis- 
turbance within the individual and lead him to a state of 
peace. 

Illustrations such as these indicate the separateness between 
life as it meets the eye and life as it is experienced beneath the 
surface level. The psyche in its vagaries, its contrariness, its 
insistence on a private idiosyncrasy, resolutely refuses to sub- 
mit to dictation or control by any external authority whatso- 
ever. The psyche simply can’t be counted on to behave 
according to accepted standards or proprieties. 

Considerations such as these have often attracted me, but 
never to the point where I felt urged to write about them — 
until one day when I came back from a funeral. In all con- 
science there was no apparent excuse for my reactions. The 
deceased was a friend whose death I sincerely deplored; the 
service was affectingly simple and free from the stencils of 
ritual. Yet in spite of the demands of the occasion I found 
myself having difficulty in restraining my laughter and barely 
succeeded in not calling attention to myself. I can offer no 
satisfactory explanation. It just happened. 

The sharp incongruity between the way I felt and the way I 
should have felt stirred me to register the general idea in a 
short poem in which against the background of Nature I 
might impose certain subjective implications. As it turned out 
the composition came more easily than was usual. The tide, 
as I recall, came first: 

Climate of the Heart. 

It expressed in an apt phrase exactly what I had in mind, a 
condition of weather and atmosphere outside of calendar and 
almanac and season; a nontemporal state. With these incite- 

57 



MAKING A POEM 


ments I soon assembled and shaped my material into the 
following form: 


Climate of the Heart 

Heat and beat of summer in December; 
Color of autumn, seen in earliest green; 
Then green again, despite the faded leaf; 
Blight of frost on June’s high noon 
When all is lost in grief; — 

Such is the wayward climate of the heart. 
Immune to weather-chart, 

Above all temporal, all natural reason, 

It choses, whensoever it will, each season. 


58 



TWELVE 


Genesis of “The Dismal Month” 


The Dismal Month 

Struggling to shake off 
The clutch of sleep, 

To strike off 
Winter’s irons, 

Spring, imprisoned maid, 

Stirs, arises. 

Bedraggled, disheveled. 

Dead leaves sticking to her hair. 

March is the dismal month of her delivery. 

Cautiously, 

In gown of shabby green 
She picks her way unsteadily 
Under lowering skies. 

Over ruts still frozen, 

Through dregs of snow. 

But, as the sun 
Every so faintly 

Nudges through a bank of slate. 

She brightens with its shine. 

Now, 

Less wearily. 

Less warily. 


59 



MAKING A PO£M 


She quickens 
Over the hill, 

Across the meadow, 

Along the twinkhng brook, 

Hair flying, 

Dead leaves blowing. 

Soon — 

Such is her art of magic and surprise — 

You will awake one morning 
And behold! 

Pure gold! 

A rush of confident crocuses 
Before your eyes. 

This poem was built on two levels. I don’t mean that it has 
a latent profundity beyond what the words obviously convey 
to the eye and ear. I am merely stating a physical fact; the 
poem was started at about sea-level in my law office in mid- 
town Manhattan; it was continued and completed months 
later at a ranch in the Colorado Rockies and at an altitude of 
9,500 feet. The fact by itself is of no consequence, since many 
poems, even short ones, are composed bit by bit at different 
times and places. 

What seems worth recording, rather, is the psychological 
and esthetic experience. The first half of the poem was actually 
written in the dismal month of March. My mood, if not dis- 
mal, was certainly one of impatience and dissatisfaction, as I 
looked back on too long a period of unproductiveness. With 
a calculated act of will I set aside a half-hour in the middle 
of a professional working day. Soon my habitual tensions and 
concerns disappeared; I had taken myself out of the city and 
found myself contemplating a country landscape. The date 
happened to be March 21, and as I noted that fact and looked 
out on the murky sky, I said to myself, wryly: “This is spring.” 

60 



GENESIS OF “the DISMAL MONTH’’ 

The point of view for a possible poem resided in that stray 
observation, which translated and extended, came to this: 

A fine kind of spring! Not the standardized spring of the poets, but 
the last chapter of winter down-at-the-heels. Shabby green. 

“Shabby green” took hold. I found no obstacle to its use al- 
though I had picked it as a title for another poem twenty-five 
years earlier. Shabby green represented the color and shoddi- 
ness for my unspringlike season. Letting my fancy roam at will 
I began to fill in the details, to picture the struggle of life 
breaking through the coils of inertia, really my own personal 
problem at that moment. 

So in due course out of the notes set down at an office desk 
the poem grew into its first fifteen lines, an imagistic presenta- 
tion, with a somewhat unconventional point of view. 

I didn’t overvalue the result as poetry; psychologically, how- 
ever, I had gained a minor reward from the mere effort of 
determined concentration. The verses, when typewritten, 
seemed respectable; examining them objectively, however, 
I decided against publication. They called for further, perhaps 
later, consideration. So, instead of tossing them in the waste- 
basket, I tucked them away in a compartment of unfinished 
business. There they remained fallow with other items to be 
subsequently available if and as the spirit might move me. 

In July I set off on a long vacation in the Colorado Rockies, 
which turned out to be more fruitful than was usually my 
good fortune. I reminded myself how so often in the past, 
through some psychological barrier, I had perversely thrown 
away similar opportunities and had come back to the daily job 
empty-handed and unhappy. 

But this time it turned out differently. I might assign the 
difference to unexpected encouragement. In June I had taken 

6i 



MAKING A POEM 


part in a writers’ workshop at the University of Kansas City. 
The University’s president, Clarence R. Decker, had placed his 
own value on my poetry and my talks on poetry by offering 
me as much space as I wished to use for new poems and articles 
in the University’s quarterly review. 

Excepting for one unpublished poem my larder was bare. 
The incentive to produce, however, now became powerful, 
inescapable, and in a few weeks, at ease and in the isolation of 
a mountain cabin I succeeded in completing two new poems, 
and three prose articles. One poem was a short lyric (“Humbly, 
Wildly”), the other a satiric portrait. The prose articles told 
the story of how each of three poems had come to birth. I am 
telling a similar story in this article on the genesis of “The 
Dismal Month.” 

To Mr. Decker’s incentive I should add the constant faith 
of my wife in these poetic confessions, and her insistence, de- 
spite my reluctance, that they would make a unique contribu- 
tion to the literature of the creative process. Be that as it may. 

From the foregoing digression, which is perhaps not a di- 
gression after all, I return to “The Dismal Month.” The vaca- 
tion was almost over. In anticipation of my return to the city 
and my law work, I was already adjusting my professional 
harness and robbing myself of the fulfillment of these final 
days, a destructive procedure, a negative pattern of whose repe- 
tition I now became acutely aware. 

At this point I pulled out the verses set aside in March. They 
did not satisfy, yet held interest. So far as they went they made 
a complete poem, but from another point of view they seemed 
only the first section of a poem that had yet to be formed. 

I had personified the season, and shown her before she had 
attained her comeliness. Now there came the wish to follow 
her progress as she fulfilled herself, passing from the shabby, 

62 



GENESIS OF “the DISMAL MONTH*’ 

the dismal, the sluggish, by a miracle of transformation, to 
something quick with life and rare with the beauty of motion 
and color. 

Two concepts aided to define this second panel or section, 
the idea of a quickening as against torpor, and the idea of con- 
fidence or self-assurance winning over weakness. The two 
words in this section which possessed most importance for me 
were “quickens” and “confident.” To these I might add 
“brightens.” 

The chief difficulty lay in indicating a progression from the 
first stage which should be gradual rather than abrupt. I had 
to feel my way with as much subtlety as I could command. 
After a few try-outs, I hit on the idea of sunlight feebly pen- 
ciling through onto the barren scene. To be right in tone, it 
had to come through, “ever so faintly.” Early sunlight with 
meager heat. 

With this much settled I proceeded to establish the transi- 
tion to a more benign atmosphere. Technically I liked the use 
of the adverbs “cautiously” and “unsteadily” in the first sec- 
tion, and decided to repeat the effect in the second section with 
“faintly,” “wearily,” and “warily,” thereby supplying a strand 
of connective tissue between the two parts. 

A further correspondence and contrast ensued from the repe- 
tition — with a difference — of the “dead leaves” image. In the 
first section they represented a hampering of life; in the second 
they no longer mattered; they had become detached and were 
blown into the past. Life now moved forward fleetly, warmly. 

I now approached the ultimate stanza, which should express 
the wonder of new birth. Up to this moment the poem was 
without rhyme. I had no intention to end it on a rhyme; it 
simply turned out so. The evolution of this stanza may be of 
interest. In the earlier versions the last three lines went: 

63 



MAKING A POEM 


And behold 

The first confident crocus 

Before your startled eyes 

This seemed reasonably satisfactory, excepting for “startled,” 
an intrusive, worthless adjective and promptly ejected. But my 
wife raised a more telling objection. To her the emergence of 
a single crocus as a climax to nature’s magnificent resurrection 
seemed inadequate and diminutive. I might have rejoined with 
Blake’s line of “all heaven in a wild-flower,” had I not felt the 
justice of her comment. I had rather expected her to question 
“confident,” and was pleased with her acceptance of it. 

Reconsidering those last lines, then, and adding the color 
gold to enrich the picture, I conceived the following, which 
met the point of her criticism: 

And behold! 

Pure gold! 

A rush of confident crocuses 

Before your eyes. 

As a footnote I might add that the adjective “confident” 
has especially appealed to many readers, perhaps not so much 
for its unusual attribution to a flower, but rather for the im- 
plicit suggestion of the renewal of faith. 


64 



THIRTEEN 


Light Verse 


When I write light verse I try to give to it the same thought, 
the same craftsmanship, the same scrupulous discipline that 
I give to verse commonly labeled as serious. I make no de- 
grading discriminations; the desire and the ideal to produce 
each poem as perfectly as possible operate without distinctions. 

Light verse, accordingly, so far as I am concerned, is not 
slight verse, nor should it be slighted, Noah Webster to the 
contrary notwithstanding. He described it condescendingly 
as “designed merely to entertain,” as though pleasure were sin- 
ful. 

The range is wide both technically and on the levels of sub- 
ject matter. One can skate blithely on the surface, kick one’s 
verbal heels in the air, or, under the guise of banter, give ex- 
pression to deep and heated emotions such as scorn, contempt, 
indignation over injustice. 

Its essential characteristics appear in its tone and temper. 
As the adjective implies, it should avoid all traces of heavi- 
ness and it should invariably be cheerful even in the treatment 
of an ironic or satiric theme; in short it should always be 
good-humored. 

It allows for infinite variety, versatility, and virtuosity, and, 
to generalize, it gains its choicest effects through technical in- 
genuity. Its vocabulary is without limit, since it disdains con- 

65 



MAKING A POEM 


finement to the dictionary and in its imaginative flights may 
coin a language never heard or dreamed of before. Lewis Car- 
roll’s “Jabberwocky,” Edward Lear with his “runcible spoon,” 
and, in our own day, the nonsensical pyrotechnics of Ogden 
Nash offer striking examples. 

The inventiveness of the light-verse writer is especially 
called into play when it comes to rhyming, where he may 
allow free rein to his acrobatic skills. Much of the amusement 
from a piece of light verse depends on the element of surprise 
over an unusual or unexpected coupling of rhymes. Here one 
finds combinations which in a serious poem would be too out- 
rageous to be tolerated. 

For over a half-century I have cavorted over this gay field 
and plead guilty to the charge of being an incurable addict. 
My malady is due to a fatal weakness for words. I enjoy them 
separately for their sounds and shapes, the way they feel on 
the tongue and appeal to the sight. My fondness is sensory; 
meaning may come later. Like a child with a bag of bright 
varicolored beads, I like to arrange words in patterns that 
will please both the ear and the eye. Making such patterns 
leads to deeper and wider exploration, to the extended musical 
line, the appropriate choice of rhythm and meter, the subtle 
interplay of vowel and consonant. 

It often happens that an item in the daily newspaper starts 
me going. “Topicals” offer a perennial invitation to verbal 
experiment and adroitness. A cable from London on Septem- 
ber 29, 1949, to the New York Herald Tribune once challenged 
me. It read: 

Princess Elizabeth turned up her royal nose at long skirts today. 

That statement, humorously phrased, certainly held pbssi- 
bilities for a bit of foolery. I felt it should be handled with a 

66 



LIGHT VERSE 


neat, crisp line, the briefest possible, and most of it in the rhym- 
ing. This is the way it came out: 

The Princess Holds the Line 

The Princess 

Evinces 

Dissent, 

Asserting 
Her skirting 
Intent. 

Her passion 
For fashion’s 
Decree 
Subsides 
As it rides 
At the knee. 

Her hemline 
She’ll streamline 
In reason, 

Unbending 
To trend 
Or to season. 

It’s written, 

No Briton’s 
A slave, 

And Bess 
Wears the dress 
Of the brave. 

Ideas for light-verse poems may originate where and when 
one least expects to encounter them. Certainly one would hardly 
expect them to issue out of a symphony concert. And yet there 
is abundance of material right there if the listener becomes 
sufficiently inattentive to escape the spell of the music. I confess 

67 



MAKING A POEM 


to such an experience at a performance of the Boston Symphony 
Orchestra. I know I should have been reverently absorbed but 
my mind wandered and my eyes instead of being focused on 
Koussevitzky were directed to the members of the orchestra 
and especially to the person who played the harp. There he 
was, sitting up there for the whole of a symphony plucking no 
more than a twang or two. I began to speculate on his situation 
— the long wait, and then the danger of coming in on the 
wrong beat and wrecking the entire rendition. My sympathies 
then spread to the drummer and the cymbalist, with their 
similar plight. Moreover one could neither ignore nor resist 
“twang or two,” with its incitement to tricky rhyming. So, 
instead of going out at the intermission, I stayed in my seat 
to sketch out what eventually became something entitled: 

Orchestra Notes 

Pity the wretched harp-player! 

Lord, he must suffer a pang or two, 

Sitting up there 

For the whole of a symphony, 

Plucking no more than a twang or two. 

Pity the hapless drummer! 

What man’s lot could be glummer? 

Tense with concern. 

Waiting his turn 

To release his appropriate bang or two. 

And the scrupulous wielder of cymbals, 

On pins and needles and thimbles! 

Marking each beat 

For the moment discreet 

To crash his climacteric zing or two. 

(He surely could tell us a thing or two.) 

68 



LIGHT VERSE 


But what if anyone misses? 

Who gets the hisses, the odium? 

Would anyone choose 
To step into the shoes 
Of the guy on the brink of the podium? 

It takes no more than a chance word or phrase to propel one 
down the road of irresponsibility to a deep but harmless state 
of intoxication. I have often succumbed to this sort of thing. 

There was the time when I was pursued by the line, “the 
shriek of a shrike.” I had to consult the dictionary to discover 
what kind of a bird a shrike is, and I never learned whether 
or not it shrieks. That of course made no difference, since I 
felt no call to scientific accuracy. But I did feel the urge to 
snare a fair collection for an aviary under the heading: 

Ornithological 

The shriek of a shrike 
I dislike; 

The look of a rook 
I can’t brook; 

The wail of a quail 
rd curtail; 

The squeal of a teal 
Lacks appeal; 

The lilt of a stilt 
Best unspilt; 

The gush of a thrush 
Pure mush; 

The hoot of a coot 
Leaves me mute, 

And Fm immune 
To the croon of a loon. 

As for nightingales and curlews, 

Fm glad they don’t infest these purlieus. 

69 



MAKING A POEM 


The chief technical fun in Operation Ornithological lay in 
the use of an interior rhyme or near rhyme in every odd line 
to supplement the regular line endings with the same sound, 

Shriek, shrike, dislike; 

Look, rook, brook. 

And the shift from a clipped meter to the longer lines of 
the closing couplet, together with its brace of fresh rhymes, 
helped considerably. 

Another example of this relish for word-play, which may 
have grown out of a youthful fondness for W. S. Gilbert’s 
complicated rhyme-schemes, is something called 

It Isn’t. 

It’s a kind of verbal “Song of the Bee” or “Minute Waltz,” 

in which I keep up the spinning and jingling until I’m about 

out of breath: ^ , 

It I s n t 

It isn’t the heat; 

It’s the humidity. 

It isn’t the cold; 

It’s the frigidity. 

It isn’t the bulk; 

It’s the solidity. 

It isn’t the grief; 

It’s the morbidity. 

It isn’t the speed; 

It’s the rapidity. 

It isn’t the greed; 

It’s the avidity. 

It isn’t the thaw; 

It’s the liquidity. 

It isn’t the law; 

It’s the juridity. 

70 



LIGHT VERSE 


It isn’t the vice; 

It’s the perfidity. 

It isn’t the ice; 

It’s the too-skidity. 

It isn’t the glue; 

It’s the viscidity. 

It’s not even you; 

It’s my hyperacidity. 

Then there’s the type of poem that builds up like a sectional 
bookcase, each unit complete by itself. The poem can stop with 
the first unit or it can go on as long as the supply of fuel holds 
out. I once wrote this momentous couplet: 

Folks in Fordham 
Die of boredom. 

A sociological conclusion requiring no further elaboration. 

However, it amused me enough to follow with the observation 

that ^ ^ . 1 . 

In Canajohane 

They just won’t marie 

and from there to mount to the gratifying climax: 

But in Yonkers 
Love conkers. 

This effort, which was practically effortless, suggested the 
inane flavor of a column of local jottings in a country news- 
paper. It now gave me a title: 

The World Around Us 

and committed me to the ensuing sequence of detached brev- 
ities: . 1 ^ 

These nights, at Cazenovia, 

You sleep with blankets ovia. 

71 



MAKING A POEM 


Some move to Oneonta, 

Others don’t wonta. 

Throughout the whole of China 

There’s not an Elk or Shrina. 

And, likewise, in Canarsie, 

One seldom meets a Parsee. 

It’s blackberry time at Pelham. 

They can ’em, stew ’em, jelham. 

The summer crowd at Brewster 

Is bigger than it yewster. 

A nudist fan at Hudson 

Was warned to put his dudson. 

A physicist at Chatham 

Last Monday split an atham. 

While this review of certain kinds of light verse doesn’t 
pretend to cover an area which has no limits either of form or 
content, one should perhaps make a few further observations. 

Around the turn of the century a favorite type of light verse 
was built on the use of French forms, such as the triolet, the 
rondeau, and the villanelle. Each in turn demanded strict con- 
formity as to length and number of lines, orthodox rhyme 
schemes, and pattern of development. The English poet, Austin 
Dobson, was perhaps the most prominent of its practitioners 
and his influence was especially strong on college undergradu- 
ates of the period. I experimented freely with these French 
forms. 

The mood was generally romantic rather than comic, well- 
bred with a pleasant gaiety, but lacked exuberance largely be- 
cause of the tight restrictions imposed. Nevertheless these 
models served as valuable exercises in technical discipline and 

72 



LIGHT VERSE 


in improving one’s craftsmanship. They could still be em- 
ployed to advantage today for the same purpose. 

It would be a mistake to think of light verse only as a vehicle 
for cleverness or nonsense or the antics of comedy high or low. 
It often has qualities similar to those one finds in more serious 
lyrics, quiet grace, concern with the natural scene, the use of 
historical or literary allusion, to name but a few. I tried to in- 
corporate such qualities in a playful tribute to the late Major 
Bowes when he was engaged in a tree-planting competition 
with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., on Fifth Avenue at Radio City. 
I also wanted the piece to be a vignette of Manhattan. Here 

U AT 

Hail to the Major 

All hail to Major Edward Bowes, 

Supreme of impresarios, 

Who, magically, without theatrics, 

Has set a grove around St. Patrick’s, 

Mightiest feat of legerdemain 
Since Birnam moved to Dunsinane. 

The ancient stones, austere and papal. 

He warms with greenery of maple. 

Building isles of cloistered shade 
For office boy, for man and maid. 

But is the major’s appetite 
For nature satisfied? Not quite. 

He looks at John D. Junior’s realm 
Where elm sedately nods to elm. 

Then plants his own, to parallel ’m. 

And so, municipal thanks we give. 

(We hope they’ll live.) 

As I suggested near the beginning, beneath the innocent 
cover of good-natured light verse, thought and comment may 

73 



MAKING A POEM 


exist with deeper meaning. The medium is congenial to satire 
and irony. The easy tone, the seemingly amiable treatment 
may prove more effective than one pitched in anger. 

A chance to do a piece of this sort turned up when the 
Russian composer, Shostakovich, visited this country ostensibly 
to attend a convocation to promote intercultural relations be- 
tween the Soviet Union and the United States. The question 
in most people’s minds was whether Shostakovich came as a 
political propagandist or as a nonpolitical artist. With this 
doubt unresolved I wrote: 

Salutation 

Dubious greetings, Shostakovich, 

Friend or foe, we’d like to \now which. 
Artist-brother of Stravinsky? 

Or an envoy of Vishinsky? 

We should hate to think the latter, 

We prefer to hope you’ll frater- 
Nize within our tranquil borders 
As a guy not under orders. 

On a true esthetic mission; 

And, to strengthen your position. 

Won’t you bring along that Dove 
Of Peace? With love, 

It’s about time to close this chapter. Although the subject is 
inexhaustible, the reader’s patience is not. All I have meant to 
do here has been to present not too pedantically, I trust, a 
general view of the nature of light verse, its standards, its 
variety, its special techniques, its place in the poetic scheme. 

By way of illustration I have offered selected samplings of 
my own work. Perhaps the right note on which to end would 
be with this friendly parting injunction, with a hint ‘from 
Kipling: 


74 



LIGHT VERSE 


Never 

Never try to emulate the emu, 

A-burying your head within the sand, 

Never aim to simulate the sea-mew. 

Unless you have a parachute at hand. 

Never seek to monkey with a mongoose. 

No matter how appealingly he begs; 

Remember that by nature he is one goose 
Incapable of yielding golden eggs. 

Never stop to reason with a rhesus, 

You’ll find him disappointingly obtuse; 

Yea, though he may possess the wealth of Croesus, 
He lacks the brain to turn it to his use. 

Never risk adventure with a vulture, 

His point of view is not as broad as yours; 

He’s backward both in background and in culture. 
You’d better keep away till he matures. 

Never try to trifle with a truffle, 

A fungus with a missing sense of fun. 

Such fancies, if you stifle, if you muffle, 

You’ll never be a man, my son. 


75 



FOURTEEN 


Snow: Theme with Variations 


At the moment of creation one is often unaware of the role 
played by the unconscious; behind the wings, for all that, it 
dominates the stage. It chooses the theme from its inexhaustible 
store, thrusts it up to the surface and insists on its expression. 
It may be only long after the poem has been written that in 
retrospect one discovers the hidden predilections which have 
demanded to be released, recognized and made manifest in an 
esthetic form. 

Each one of us has his own favorite themes predetermined 
in this way. They bear the stamp of his personal imagery. 

In my own case as I reread poems written during the past 
thirty years I am confronted with the frequency with which I 
write about snow. I’ve preserved a dozen or so of such pieces 
and no two duplicate each other whether in the approach to 
the subject matter or in the technical treatment. 

I suppose it all goes back to that pristine experience when a 
child in wide-eyed wonderment contemplates for the first time 
a sky suddenly alive with white particles whirled from no- 
where, flying, drifting, floating in air, and at last soundlessly 
covering the earth. The miracle somehow becomes incorpo- 
rated in the infant psyche, never to lose its magic, to be vividly 

76 



snow: theme with variations 


fed with each fresh snowfall to the end of the chapter. 

At least so it has been with me. And so it is that as the snows 
pile up year after year in the imagination which preserves 
them against melting into forgetfulness, they form a deep, in- 
delible body of material for anyone attracted by the marvel and 
disposed to interpret its enchantment. 

I have just written of “white particles whirled from no- 
where.” Perhaps I have too rashly assumed how this appears to 
a child as it first meets with the mystery. But it may be other- 
wise. My own fantasy at the noninfantile age of forty-five con- 
jured up both a locus and a source in 

Snow Toward Evening 

Suddenly the sky turned gray. 

The day, 

Which had been bitter and chill, 

Grew soft and still. 

Quietly 

From some invisible blossoming tree 
Millions of petals cool and white 
Drifted and blew. 

Lifted and flew, 

Fell with the falling night. 

This brief lyric has been frequently reprinted in anthologies 
for children and whatever popularity it may have won I at- 
tribute largely to the fact that the image of a tree with white 
petals instinctively and acceptably appeals to the sensibilities 
of a growing child watching it snow. 

As I re-examine the snow poems I find that although they 
originated from many moods and even at different levels of 
the imagination their dominant note is almost always benign. 
This can perhaps best be illustrated by these four lines, not 
from a snow poem but from one called “White Fog”: 

77 



MAKING A POEM 


Bury deep the black world 
Underneath the white. 

Nothing can be seen, 

Everything grows clear. 

Snow similarly becomes a symbol of peace and illumination, 
transcending the pain, the turmoil, and the despair of man’s 
pilgrimage in the world of reality. As the flakes gather, or- 
ganize, and patiently descend, they develop a mystical power 
of conquest; weightless, they overcome with secret strength 
the adverse forces of earth. And as we witness the spectacle 
we undergo a change in our own psyche; we have loosened 
our mundane adhesions and have arrived at a state of release. 

Before proceeding to a fuller discussion of the benign and 
mystical properties I ascribe to snow, I should like to contrast 
them with my feeling toward nature when it is locked in ice. 
Whereas snow in most cases stands for affirmation and life, 
ice usually represents negation and death. I draw this conclu- 
sion from two poems, '']divmdiry Garden” and “Deep in Wagon- 
Ruts.” 

Deep in wagon-ruts 
Blue frost settles. 

Crystal lilies 
With silver petals 
Whiten blue pools. 

Shadows 

On stiffened meadows 
Spread blue the snow. 

A last quiver^ — 

The strangled river 
Glazes ice-blue. 

Here I started out to write a simple imagist poem. The eye 
is focused on the object; the senses are enlisted to note the 
natural operation that produces frost, with its prevailing colors 

78 



snow: theme with variations 


of silver and blue. But as the lines proceed a subjective element 
creeps in. The poem is no longer merely or purely pictorial; it 
begins to acquire the overtones of a personal point of view. 
This added constituent is introduced by “shadows on stiffened 
meadows,” which at least for me conveys a sense of sadness. 
It forecasts the final three lines with their description of a 
death scene in nature. The choice of the lurid words “quiver,” 
“strangled,” and “glazes” illustrates how a mood of dejection 
has taken possession and has converted what set out to be a 
fragment of visual observation into something beyond the 
sensory. 

“January Garden” is born of the same attitude, although 
here it is held throughout. The cold is “insidious” in its in- 
exorable iciness; indeed it is the personification of death seal- 
ing “the flower-border like a grave.” 

The poem is hopeless — quite the opposite of Shelley’s inti- 
mation that if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind. 
Stanza by stanza it advances to emphasize the implacable grip 
of a malign agency over life and beauty as they flourished in 
spring and summer. 

Take a sharp pick. 

Break the harsh thick 
Wintry metal; 

Once you might have found 
Springing through the ground 
What goes to shape a petal. 

The poem concludes on a note of utter, even macabre finality: 

Beauty’s womb 
Is now a tomb 
For frozen worms. 


79 



MAKING A POEM 


I have placed these ice and snow poems in contiguity not 
merely for the sake of contrast but also to indicate how poems 
of completely irreconcilable states of feeling may germinate 
according to the mood and circumstance of any given moment 
in one’s life. 

Now I desire to return more faithfully to my subject which 
is the consideration of my snow poems and their variety. 

The “earthiest” poem of the lot is called “Last Night It 
Snowed.” It’s the only one about snow in the city and most 
closely resembles “Deep in Wagon-Ruts” in that both derive 
primarily from sensation. In “Wagon-Ruts” the approach is 
through the eye; the city poem is based on sound and the 
sense impressions are recorded on and by the ear. 

The situation presented in “Last Night It Snowed” is one 
with which I have been happily familiar ever since as a child 
I came from the country to live in New York. It too, like 
“Snow Toward Evening,” is touched off by a quiet current of 
enchantment. The enchantment is created through the transi- 
tion, while one is asleep, from one world to another. One goes 
to bed unprepared for any weather change, but is shaken out 
of sleep next morning by the delightful information, conveyed 
by the sound of shovels and picks, that there’s a fresh fall of 
snow. 

I know that a practical person will smile at my cheerful ac- 
ceptance of the event. His reaction will most likely be to curse 
the elements for a state of affairs involving the need of galoshes, 
the breakdown of transportation service, and the threat of in- 
influenza. Eventually I too shall be coming down to earth, or 
rather to slush and sleet; indeed I have already disturbed the 
spell with the recognition that this heaven-sent purity will yield 
to corruption and turn into “wintry dregs.” Meantime I shall 

8o 



snow: theme with variations 


have enjoyed the flavor of my experience at awakening, with 
its other-world magic. 

“Last Night It Snowed” was primarily an experiment with 
sound effects; I reproduce it here by way of illustration: 

Dent! dent! 

Hollow, blunt 

Din of eager shovels, cracking 
The warm husk of sleep, breaking 
Open day. 

Dent! dent! 

Clipped chant 
Of iron cuts 
The knit air. 

Chips a clear 
Powdery way 
In airy snow, 

In earthy snow; 

Hits 

The case 

Of ice at the base; 

Splits 

And severs, flesh from bone. 

Ice from stone. 

Dent! scrape! 

Dent! scrape 
Wintry dregs 
From city flags. 

From “Last Night It Snowed” I turn from a consideration 
of sound effects to an investigation of snow in motion. The 
question I asked myself was but incompletely answered in the 
next poem, “Hither and Thither”; it was whether, above the 
seeming fitfulness of falling snow, there existed an underlying 

8i 



MAKING A POEM 


pattern, a basic order in control of these shifting particles drawn 
by changing winds. 

I believe the conception originated in this fashion: I knew 
that each single flake formed a unit of crystal symmetry. From 
that premise my imagination began to play with the thought 
that these perfect units when assembled must constitute and 
create a perfect structure in the large. Obviously the concep- 
tion could not be confirmed by scientific proof. It led me into 
the expanse of metaphysics. In short, the outer eye, observing 
the flight of flakes, could discover no general plan of operation, 
could take in only a scene of beauty without apparent purpose 
or meaning. But the inner eye, dissatisfied and seeking further, 
persisted in the conviction of an underlying design. 

How this conviction developed to the point of concrete ver- 
bal expression one may discern in the poem as presented here. 

Hither and Thither 

The way of snow is hither and thither, 

The restless way of to and fro, 

Impatient of the fixed, the mean, 

Too accurate law, the strict machine. 

The way of snow is hither and thither. 

The twisting way of criss and cross; 

Needles ply, the fluent threads 
Gather and join; the wonder spreads. 

The way of snow is hither and thither, 

The fitful way of slant and stray; 

It spins a cloth of powdery spume, 

Wind s the shuttle, sky the loom. 

The way of snow is hither and thither. 

The floating way of drift and lift. 

Perceive 

The flaky weave! 

82 



snow: theme with variations 


Divine 

The white design! 

I have never felt that “Hither and Thither” did complete 
istice to the metaphysical conception ; it lacks, I fear, the neces- 
Lry reach into the unknown, the transcendent imaginative 
retch. But it is an attempt, at least, to set forth the ocular ex- 
erience against its deeper implications. 

It was one of the most difficult and obstinate compositions I 
/cr undertook. Unfortunately since I failed to save the many 
3ortive beginnings and discarded versions I am unable to 
irow much light on the obstacles. The essential problem, how- 
ler, was to present the wayward effects of wind-blown snow 
ad at the same time by suggestion and inference to build up 
ad make plausible the possibility of an underlying “white 
esign.” Perhaps the most helpful factor was the choice of the 
ne, repeated at the beginning of each stanza. 

The way of snow is hither and thither, 

gainst the image of spinning and weaving a texture, a philo- 
)phical fabric, as it were. 

Whereas “Hither and Thither” sought to discover a gen- 
ral, all-embracing pattern, “April Flurry” created out of a 
ibjective state of being an objective picture with emphasis 
ither on the separate flakes than on the mass. 

April Flurry 

This tardy April blast 
Is winter’s final thrust; 

It cannot master 
Or halt invincible spring, 

But only bluster 
And scatter and drive 
Out of a cloudy hive 
A swarm benign. 

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MAKING A POEM 


White bees, 

Without hum, without sting. 

Drift through boughs of pine. 

Directionless they rove. 

And unintentioned, these — 

Freed 
Of any 

Flowery greed. 

Incurious of honey. 

My own physical and psychological condition at the time 
throws light on the quiet mood and gentle pace of “April 
Flurry.” It was written in our home at Westport, Connecticut, 
where I was spending a brief convalescence after an operation. 
The break in my regular life necessitated by hospital confine- 
ment had induced a state of irresponsibility and removal from 
routine compulsion, a state which became increasingly accept- 
able with returning strength and the realization that I could 
for a few more days indulge myself in comfortable recupera- 
tion. This period was one of inward peace and unconcern. 

One day, out of my bedroom window I beheld the first 
crocuses and a stirring of new green over the grass. And then, 
with no advance notice of weather change, a breeze blew up 
and let fall a loose load of snow. Quickly the wind ceased, the 
sun came out again while the casual flakes lingered — mean- 
dered, one might say — in and about the low pines. Their tempo 
and indifference, corresponding with my own sense of letting 
go, produced quite the opposite effect by arousing me to record 
the scene. It was the first return to the creative life, as almost 
without effort I set down the little poem, with technical pleasure 
in working out the combinations of near-rhymes, and in find- 
ing the image of the white bees, so mild and unthreatening. 

“April Flurry” illustrates once more my earlier observation 
that for me the sight of snow is benign. 

84 



snow: theme with variations 


The only exception to this concept of benignity, an exception 
which vanishes as the poem progresses, is to be found in my 
other spring snow-song. 

Snow in April 

Sun is young in the year, 

April is tender, 

Pink tips appear 
On branches slender. 

Brown earth, stiff with cold, 

Loosens green and gold. 

Silver shine in the sky 
Darkens to leaden; 

Snarling winds fly. 

Shrivel and deaden. 

Snow-armies crush 
Bough and bud and bush. 

Venturous spring! 

And, for what reason 
This sorrowful thing — 

Throttling a season? 

Chilling in birds their song, 

Choking the song? 

Perilous birth! 

Too early hour! 

Detain, under earth. 

Each delicate flower. 

Winter must lengthen 
Spring to strengthen! 

Cover with white; 

Green blades whiten. 

On jonquil-gold spread winter- white; 

The opening soil tighten. 

Shelter, restrain the spring! 

Till sky and sod and robins sing. 

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MAKING A POEM 


Here near the outset and down through the first sections 
the aspect of snow is one of destruction and evil. My sympathies 
go out to the life and beauty of the awakening, flowery season, 
caught unawares and still too lacking in strength to resist the 
attack of a late and unexpected wintry enemy. The images 
are those of warfare and cruelty, “snow-armies,” “throttling,” 
“choking,” “chilling” (the equivalent of killing). Accompany- 
ing winds are “snarling”; they “shrivel and deaden.” No sun 
shines; skies are “leaden.” 

But once my anger over this violation, this infamy, has been 
spent, a new and contrary mood takes possession. Negation 
and death no longer prevail. I capture the enemy, as it were, 
and make him do my bidding. The crushing menace is trans- 
formed into an instrument of protective love, a sheltering 
blanket. So the poem closes with the unmistakable intimation 
that the battle for survival has been won. 

Of all my snow-poems the one I regard as most imaginative 

ID C 

Presence of dnow 

So rare, so mere, 

You cannot hear 

It brush against the stillness or impair 

With faintest stir 

The poised, suspended air. 

So rare, so mere. 

And yet imponderably clear; 

You cannot see, yet see 
The secret flow 
Of immanent snow. 

Although 

The softest breath has yet to free, 

The gentlest current yet to take 
The first bewildered flake. 

86 



snow: theme with variations 


Paradoxically it is most imaginative despite the absence of a 
single concrete image until we encounter in the very last line 

The first bewildered flake. 

I find certain affinities between “Presence of Snow” and 
“Snow Toward Evening.” In both the mood is one of hushed 
expectancy, of undetermined pendency. In both we are deal- 
ing with an atmospheric state which ultimately crystallizes in 
a definite form. In “Snow Toward Evening” we have the 
larger image, an “invisible blossoming tree” shedding its petals ; 
in “Presence of Snow” the image is a single “bewildered flake.” 

The dominant note in both pieces is that of immanence; I 
use the word as an adjective in “Presence of Snow” to express 
this sense of indwelling. (When first published a well-mean- 
ing typesetter had changed “immanent” to “imminent,” an un- 
welcome act of collaboration.) 

“Presence of Snow,” written many years later than “Snow 
Toward Evening,” as I see the matter in retrospect, really issues 
out of the earlier poem as a more subtle development of the 
common theme. The choice of such adjectives as “rare” and 
“mere” in the first line, and repeated later, is intended to sug- 
gest a region of unearthliness, a climate of transcendent purity. 
TTie suggestion is heightened and carried forward more in- 
tricately than in “Snow Toward Evening” by the soft r sound 
in the rhymes of “hear,” “impair,” “stir,” “air,” “clear.” 

The intention is to create a pre-elemental condition, or per- 
haps an intimation in advance of the physical fact of actual 
snow. In seeking to produce the requisite suspense as well as 
to lead up to the denouement, I found that by using the open 
vowel sounds of “see” and “free,” “flow,” “snow,” and “al- 
though,” I was establishing phonetically an avenue of transmis- 

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MAKING A POEM 


sion from the immaterial to the material, culminating in a 
single apprehensible visible flake. 

Such are the various poems that represent my feeling for 
snow. Others may still follow. 


88 



FIFTEEN 


The Rat Image 


In chapter 14 I considered the insistent demands of the un- 
conscious in forcing to the light buried but potent images of 
symbolic significance to the psyche. In that chapter I addressed 
myself to the impact of the snow image and to the frequency 
and variety of my poems dealing with snow. I concluded on 
rereading them that for me the thought of snow conjured up 
a feeling of its benign nature. 

My venture with snow has led me to reflect on another 
image of which I was unaware when I wrote, but which rims 
through many of my poems and derives from quite another 
emotional state, at the opposite pole from benignity. 

It is the rat image, and is invested with the odor of malignity. 

How this image came to birth I cannot be sure but I can 
hazard a plausible guess. It grew I believe out of an episode 
which was thoughtlessly retold in my presence at an early im- 
pressionable age. This in brief is the story. 

My parents lived in Plattsburg, New York, where my father 
was in a business requiring him to make long trips through 
the Adirondack villages. At such times my mother would be 
alone in the house, a prey to fears both real and imagined. A 
real-fear was that of rats which infested the place. On one such 
occasion, so the tale goes, a large rat worked its way into my 

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MAKING A POEM 


crib. Frantically my mother snatched me from the danger, 
but the rat, temporarily frustrated, pursued the attack and 
leaped on her as she held me high in her arms in ultimate 
safety. The experience was so shattering that it left a lasting 
imprint, and her only relief, however temporary, lay in fre- 
quently recounting the episode to her relatives and neighbors. 
It was on one such occasion that I chanced to be present and to 
receive the sharp communication of her terror. I must have 
been four or five years old at the time. I can only add that for 
the better part of my life I suffered from this childhood psychic 
wound. 

Deeply locked in my unconscious, the image of the rat and 
the drama in which it played so lurid a role nevertheless strug- 
gled for release. Eventually as I turned to the writing of verse 
it began to appear in my poems and to allow for periods of 
intermittent freedom. 

My first poem on this theme is one called 

F EELINGS 

The cat killed a rat. 

Magnificent in conquest 

It lay basking. 

How splendid the cat! 

How horrid, how venomous the rat! 

I breathed heavy with exultation 

Over my enemy 

Stiff and ugly in the dust. 

It was no rat; 

It was a baby rabbit, 

Warmness running out. 

Tender, curving back! 

Soft, pathetic fur! 

Innocent, wondering eyes! 

90 



THE RAT IMAGE 


The proud cat crumples and slinks, 

Wind rips the roses, 

A cloud bags the sun. 

Here in all its malignity and high emotional voltage is 
probably the strongest expression of my battle with the beast. 
I portray it as charged with venom and horror. I myself am in 
effect the cat who killed its enemy and mine. I share the cat’s 
triumph and “breathe heavy with exultation” over the ex- 
termination of this baleful, evil thing. 

As the incident turns out, the destroyed creature is not a rat 
but a rabbit, and on discovering this fact, my anger and hate 
become directed against the cat, no longer my ally, but a cruel 
adversary instead. 

My next poem, written soon after “Feelings,” is called 

A Rat 

There’s a rat in the wall, 

A rat in the wall. 

At the side of the bed 
Close to the head; 

Gnawing a path 
Through a thicket of lath, 

Pawing a track 
Through a forest of black. 

Will it nibble and scratch 
Till it loosens the latch 
Of the portal of me? — 

Will it scrape itself free? 

Will it crumble and master 

The wavering plaster 

That leans between me and disaster? 

Here the dread and loathing expressed in “Feelings” appear 
in le§s violent terms. The animal does not reveal itself visually 
but works hidden within a wall. The fear persists, it is true, 

91 



MAKING A POEM 


but is tempered, however faintly, by the possibility of escape. 
The rat conceivably may not destroy me, despite its cunning, 
relentless progress. 

Years later, without realizing at the time the similarity in 
situation to that presented in “A Rat,” I produced 

Dawn Has Yet To Ripple In 

What is this that I have heard ? 

Scurrying rat or stirring bird ? 

Scratching in the wall of sleep ? 

Twitching on the eaves of sleep? 

I can hear it working close 
Through a space along the house, 

Through a space obscure and thin. 

Night is swiftly running out, 

Dawn has yet to ripple in. 

Dawn has yet to clear the doubt. 

Rat within or bird without. 

Again my enemy seems to lie in wait, unseen but disturb- 
ingly audible; again I ask the question posed in the earlier 
poem — will it break through to my ruin? But with this note- 
worthy difference: I have introduced as a foil to the rat the 
symbol of a bird, giving to the bird equal power, significance, 
and opportunity. My question then becomes twofold: I have 
arranged a contest between opposing forces — of evil against 
good. Thus, by the affirmative act of juxtaposition, I have cor- 
respondingly reduced the bestial menace. Its chances of suc- 
cess are no better than fifty-fifty, and although the scales have 
not been weighted in favor of the bird of hope, the living spirit, 
one feels, with the overtone of dawn rippling in to supplant 
night, that the rat may be destined to defeat. 

These three pieces reflect in varying degrees the intensify of 
my antipathy. Traces still linger in other poems. For example, 

92 



THE RAT IMAGE 


in “Country-House: Midnight,” where I contrast a room be- 
fore and after the electric lights have been turned off — life and 
death — I end with these lines: 

High, where a clock companionahly sat, 

A metal rat’s-tooth 
Evenly nicks and nibbles. 

In “For a Yellow Bird Dead on a City Roof” I say: 

Corruption eats away the feathery gold 
To rattish gray. 

One hardly needs to be reminded that the power and fury 
of the rat symbol increases or diminishes according to one’s 
subjective state at the time of creation. Indeed it is pleasant to 
reflect that in other poems, as the mood becomes gentler and 
even playful, the rat-dragon is transmuted and reduced into 
the diminutive and harmless mouse. In “Time To Return to 
Town,” a poem about the first hint of winter, I have this 
stanza: 


Along in the night the northwind charged, 

Driving the moon to cover. 

Chill, like a mouse. 

Gnawed at the eaves. 

Scratched at the sills. 

But in the earlier version I had written 

Chill, like a rat, 

only to realize that the situation was not sufl&ciently ominous 
to justify an image that strong. 

In “Lying in Grass,” where I seek to present the kinetic qual- 
ity of a natural scene, I lightly describe the human eyes as 

93 



MAKING A POEM 


Two field-mice, 

Scurrying, scurrying 
Through grass-tips 
Sniffing shadows, 

Nibbling sun-glints, 

Darting back 
Into sleep-holes. 

In “Our Apartment in August,” I hear 

Scratch of a mouse in terror behind the pipes. 

Finally, in “October Night — ^Westport,” quite in contrast to 
the “metal rat’s-tooth” of “Country-House: Midnight” I pro- 
duce the following picture of tranquillity and peace. 

October Night — Westport 


Out of doors a million gentle stars, 
Winds of evening, strokes of tenderness, 
Thud of fruit, dropping late. 

Within the house 
A quiet light in the lamp. 

Strained boards relax. 

Behind the plaster 
Criss-cross mouse-play. 

In the wing-chair shelter 
You and a book. 

Hand reaching toward the settle — 

Slices of apple, slivers of nut, cider-jug. 
On the rug. 

Swelling, falling, swelling, falling. 
Warm mass of drowsing cat. 

On the mantel 
Tick-tock, tick-tock. 

Logs burn thin. 

Sag to embers. 

Crumbling orange embers. 


94 



THE RAT IMAGE 


The menacing rat in the wall of the poems “A Rat” and “Dawn 
Has Yet To Ripple In” has turned into a friendly mouse play- 
ing behind the plaster; the corrosive clockwork on the mantel 
of “Country-House: Midnight” has been converted into a sym- 
bol of rhythmic harmony. Time beats sturdily on. 

Tick-tock, tick-tock. 


95 



SIXTEEN 


“The Fly* and Its Problems 


The composition of “The Fly,” a deceptively simple poem, 
presented problems of whose nature I was unaware until they 
were pointedly called to my attention. The poem in its two 
versions offers a sharp illustration of the gap between what the 
poet may think he has written and what he has actually pro- 
duced. In the present case it turned out that the significance of 
the poem in its earlier version and the inferences drawn by the 
reader were quite the opposite of what I had intended to convey. 

At the moment, it will be sufficient to print the two versions 
together, without further comment. Should you be curious to 
compare them before going on with this account, you will 
probably discover the clue to my dilemma. 

Version A 

A big black buzzing fly. 

So safe in the open sky. 

Has blundered into the room 
And begins its battle with doom. 

With desperate dashes and loops 
It bashes, recoils and swoops 
And bangs again and again 
At an obdurate window-pane. 

96 



“the fly” and its problems 

I sit at my desk to write, 

Entrapped in the creature’s plight. 

It has lost the power o£ sight; 

It has missed the invisible crack, 

The gate to the pathway back. 

Version B 

A big black buzzing fly, 

So safe in the open sky. 

Has blundered into the room 
And begins its battle with doom. 

With desperate dashes and loops 
It bashes, recoils and swoops 
And bangs again and again 
At an obdurate window-pane. 

I sit at my desk to write. 

Entrapped in the creature’s plight. 

It has lost the power of sight; 

It has missed the invisible crack. 

Will it ever regain the track? 

The gate to the pathway back ? 

First, however, I should like to tell how the poem got its 
start. As frequently happens with me, the genesis of “The Fly” 
emanated from a vacuum of emotion and of idea; it was born 
out of a state of exhaustion. 

I had been poring over a manuscript sent by a publisher- 
client for my opinion whether it contained any libelous mat- 
ter. This kind of investigation requires close, responsible scru- 
tiny; one can’t allow the mind to wander. But after two 
unrelieved hours or more over the task I found myself reading 
without taking in what was on the page. I had reached the 
saturation point, where it would be dangerous to proceed fur- 
ther and run the risk of missing some offensive sentence or 
phrase. 


97 



MAKING A POEM 


As I laid aside the proof-sheets, too weary to take up any 
other work on my desk, a big black fly happened to circle and 
buzz around my head. 

Now a big black buzzing fly, you might think, is hardly 
fertile soil for a poem. A fly is uninteresting; it has no glamour, 
like a bird; if it arouses any emotion at all it is likely to be one 
of annoyance rather than of sympathy. A fly is something to 
get rid of, and if it grows persistently irritating by its unsolic- 
ited attentions, it deserves to be swatted to extinction. 

But if a big black buzzing fly happens to venture into a 
room on the fourteenth floor of a mid-Manhattan office build- 
ing it ceases to be commonplace. Only an exceptional fly would 
have adopted that unusual lane of travel. Had the room been 
alive with swarming flies I doubt whether I’d have noticed 
them. Most likely it was the unique phenomenon of this solo 
flight that caused me spontaneously to utter the words: 

“A big, black, buzzing fly.” 

This simple statement, artless as a child’s nursery jingle, 
lingered agreeably on my tongue. It was no more — and no less 
— than a pleasant verbal combination. What I found engaging 
was that the words had arranged themselves without fore- 
thought. Consciously, at least, I had no part in their selection, 
nor had I been guilty of any manipulation. 

A word or a phrase or an image may come to me, as it were, 
out of the blue. If it carries a compulsive pressure to my senses, 
if it disturbs me sufficiently by its demands on my attention, I 
soon come to realize that a something beyond my control has 
issued a command that must be respected. This intangible 
something has thus ordered me to remove myself from the 
ordinary processes and concerns of the day, to submit to its 
promptings and to dedicate myself to its service. Only in such 

98 



“the fly” and its problems 

fashion and in such atmosphere can that operation arise which 
may end in a poem. 

This possibly sounds like a pretentious approach to the plain 
fact that I liked the sound of those few words and decided to 
do something about them. I hadn’t the remotest idea of what 
the poem was going to be about, if it ever should accumulate 
enough momentum to reach the stage where meaning needed 
to be considered. 

Here were three words, each beginning with the letter b, a 
pleasing labial. I doubt whether I experienced anything beyond 
this consciousness of satisfaction with mere sound. It stimulated 
me sufficiently, however, to move onward to a second line. 

So safe in the open sky. 

Here consciousness indeed intervened to contrast the normal, 
carefree world of the fly with the scene of its present predica- 
ment. This second line therefore pointed the way, possibly, to 
some later philosophical or psychological observation on the 
experience as I saw it objectively — a fly out of its safe element, 
blundering into a situation of peril. 

My fondness for the b sound received unexpected support 
by my choice of the word “blunder” to characterize the crea- 
ture’s waywardness, and I began toying with the idea of an 
improvisation on the note of b. My earliest version of lines 
third and fourth read: 

Has blundered into the room 

In a blind battle with doom. 

On second thought I preferred a more active line, a verbal 
rather than an adjectival progression, and accordingly substi- 
tuted . j begins its battle with doom. 

99 



MAKING A POEM 


Another reason for the change was that the use of “blind” 
seemed premature, even an interference with the poem’s de- 
velopment. It assumed too much, implying inexorable defeat. 
The battle with doom would have been over before it had be- 
gun. So my substitute line accomplished the further advantage 
of setting in motion this mortal contest, and consequently of 
keeping the poem suspended and open to whatever turn the 
fates might decree. 

Reading over these first four lines I found that my involve- 
ment with the letter b idea was more than a whimsical notion 
or a clever stunt; it seemed esthetically justifiable and capable 
of further development. Had my subject been a bee instead of 
a fly, this would have seemed fairly obvious. In fact this par- 
ticular fly held for me distinct bee-like associations as to size, 
color, roving flight, and droning sound. 

So, in proceeding to build the poem I deliberately ransacked 

my brain for relevant words beginning with the letter b. Soon 

I had collected: , _ , 

baffled 

bewildered 

bangs 

bashes 

blank 

bar 

The next step was to turn to the fly itself as it sped about 
the room, and observe and record its frantic, hit-or-miss, futile 
spurts toward freedom. This involved noting each of the di- 
verse, intricate, ever-changing movements without slowing 
down the dynamics or the tempo of the operation. I strove as 
always for objective accuracy, tightness of statement, avoid- 
ance of useless decoration, in order to make the effect -vivid 
in its graphic truthfulness. 


100 



“the fly” and its problems 

To that end you will note that I not only picked two of my 
^-words, “bashes” and “bangs,” but snared a new one, “ob- 
durate,” in the process. It’s a proved fact that when you start 
out with a notion like the ^-word you attract similar words 
into the magnetic field. 

The selection of “bashes” was a calculated choice on two 
counts; first, it seemed the most accurate verb to suggest a 
mounting, baffled recklessness; and second, it gave me a chance 
to implant an internal rhyme to go with “dashes” in the pre- 
ceding line. 

I favor the internal or interior rhyme as a valuable prosodic 
device, provided always that it be naturally and legitimately 
introduced. It has the great merit of adding a strand to tighten 
the texture of the line and to increase the poem’s general 
strength and resilience. Here I feel it deepens and accelerates 
the flow of the verse. 

A few lines later, to anticipate, I repeated the effect with 
the words “lost” and “missed,” in the lines: 

It has lost the power of sight; 

It has missed the invisible crack. 

This device is extremely tempting, often leading the unwary 
or unskilled into its too frequent, too blatant use. Thus it be- 
comes a mere artifice which loses its effectiveness by overem- 
phasis. Internal rhymes should be unobtrusive, discretely 
inserted; to be successful they must be subtly felt, below rather 
than above the level of consciousness. 

Here then, were eight lines, assembled in a compact shape, 
tentatively, perhaps permanently congenial to me. 

What to do next.'* What sort of structure to build on this 
base.? Should the poem confine itself to the case of the fly.? 


lOI 



MAKING A POEM 


Or should it aim at a wider significance, with general human 
implications? 

The answer came quite unforced as I pondered. It arose out 
of my own quandary over the next step. Sitting at my desk, 
with eight lines on the paper before me, I felt stuck, powerless 
to proceed, yet unwilling to admit failure. And then suddenly 
it dawned on me that my sense of frustration was basically no 
different from the fly’s; though the one was physical and the 
other psychological, we were both in the same boat. And with 
this flash of recognition came the decision to put myself briefly 
into the poem, exactly as I appeared to myself at the moment. 

Accordingly, I merely recorded the actual prosaic fact that 
I was sitting at a desk, but couldn’t go on writing because of 
my absorption in the fly’s difficulties. Continuing in the meter 
and rhyme-pattern of the first stage of the poem, I introduced 
myself briefly in the two lines: 

I sit at my desk to write, 

Entrapped in the creature’s plight. 

By thus reaching out to the human and personal, the poem 
at once assumed a new aspect and moved to a larger area of 
speculation. These two lines had opened a second chapter; the 
nature of the chapter had now to be determined. 

Here it should be remembered that this poem did not start 
from an idea or subject capable of logical development and 
with the end in constant view from the beginning; on the 
contrary it grew out of an initial phrase which moved way- 
wardly, gathering accretions with growing concentration on 
the material. It represents a case where the material, as it de- 
velops and hardens, tends to determine or at least suggest what 
the poem may be about; thus the theme of the poem, the point 
of view, comes late. 


102 



“the fly” and its problems 

Without appearing too positive, I suppose that having writ- 
ten the words “the creature’s plight,” I was prompted to ask 
myself what caused that plight The answer that it had lost the 
power of sight came readily. And, going on, because of this 
loss of vision, it had missed the invisible crack, the available 
inch or so between the lowered window and the sill. 

Surveying the accumulated twelve lines, I felt no need to 
amplify the picture. The fact that I had provided an avenue 
of escape through that invisible crack now forced me to a 
decision on what note to close. 

For a moment or so my moralistic demon teased me with a 
suggestion both banal and sentimental: I was to be a good 
Boy Scout and gradually shoo the fly out to salvation! And as 
a corollary, if I did that, we’d both be free! I make this con- 
fession in the interest of truth and candor, but not without 
embarrassment, as an example of the traps that mine the road 
to creation. What probably happened was that having planted 
myself in the poem I felt I had to do something to justify the 
intrusion. 

Some good did, however, come from this aberration; it de- 
termined for me that the fly, if it were to survive, would have 
to depend on its own efforts, rather than on outside aid. I had 
done enough by presenting it with a further chance via that 
crack, which if not visible, might still be apprehended in other 
nonvisual ways. 

That crack, as I cast about for a concluding line, might con- 
ceivably become 

The gate to the pathway back. 

Thus the first version was rounded out. As I considered it, 
word .for word, and line for line, I saw nothing open for fur- 
ther revision. Transferred from penciled notes to the clarity of 

103 



MAKING A POEM 


single-space typing, it looked staunch and sea-worthy. It even 
ended, quite without design, on my letter b motif, with the 
word “back.” 

Before sending it to a magazine I decided on a cooling-off 
period and tried it out separately on two friends, both sensi- 
tive and candid critics. Each in turn_was unimpressed but too 
general in comment to show me in what respect the poem was 
deficient. The first one did say that “it comes down too fast to 
the end,” but failed to particularize further. The other, even 
less specific, contented himself with the observation that it 
“wasn’t up to the later Cane.” 

I blame myself for not having drawn them out, for the re- 
sultant give-and-take would surely have been profitable. As it 
was, the talks left me disturbed and unsettled and wondering 
how I’d missed out. 

But with my third audience I had better luck. 

“My, but that’s gloomy!” she exclaimed, impulsively. 

“Oh, not that gloomy,” I protested defensively; “there’s still 
a ray of hope there.” 

“Let me read it. I can never be sure from just hearing it 
read.” 

She must have read it several times, before saying: 

“It’s not just gloomy, it’s hopeless. As I see it, there’s no way 
out; it’s a battle with doom and the fly is blinded. It’s final and 
horrible, but it’s completely satisfying for me if that’s what 
you meant to express. Certainly you have every right, estheti- 
cally.” 

Her reaction was so sharp and honest that it penetrated my 
resistance. I could only say: 

“But I didn’t mean what you’ve gathered. The poem as you 
interpret it is plainly not the one I had in mind and thought 
I’d written. I didn’t mean to shut off all possibility of escape, 

104 



“the fly” and its problems 

however I might figure the odds against it. That’s why I pro- 
vided the crack. 

“Besides, if the fates have already decreed, there’s no drama, 
the cards arc stacked, and from my point of view the thing 
isn’t worth bothering about. 

“Let me have it again,” I continued; “I think you’ve opened 
my eyes to where I fell down. In aiming for a strong effect, I 
rushed too fast and left out an essential element. It isn’t the 
first time I’ve done that either.” 

We were both silent for several minutes as I fingered the 
paper as if to re-feel the poem. Finally, I said: 

“I think I’ve hit on something. What’s needed is a line be- 
tween the last two to indicate that the battle hasn’t been lost, 
the struggle isn’t over — a line that there’s still a fighting chance. 
Not a Pollyanna line, of course. 

“How about this simple question which leaves the issue 

Will it ever regain the track? 

and then end, with a further question instead of a period: 

The gate to the pathway back?” 

“If that’s what you meant all along,” she observed, “you’ve 
said it now for the first time.” 

In the days following this conversational exchange I en- 
joyed the contentment and compensation from having faced a 
difficulty and come through triumphant. But as the days wore 
on my self-satisfaction began to wear off. Nameless indefinable 
doubt would enter and disturb the comfortable assurance of 
success. Was I really through with the poem? Had I exhausted 
all possibilities for betterment ? At odd moments I would take 


105 



MAKING A POEM 


the poem from my pocket, re-examine it, test it with an im- 
aginary tuning-fork, find nothing to adjust or correct, and 
then return it to my pocket unchanged. Perhaps I was borrow- 
ing trouble. Perhaps I was overdoing my drive for perfection. 
Still, my uneasiness persisted. 

It was in this state of irresolution that I showed the poem 
to still another friend, a man from whom I could expect can- 
dor at all times and a sound judgment as well. 

“Take a look at this,” I ventured self-consciously. “I’ve had 
a lot of trouble over it, and thought I’d finished it off. But now 
I’m not at all sure. I’m still bothered. What do you think?” 

The pause seemed interminable until he came back bluntly 
with; 

“It isn’t good, it isn’t right.” 

I waited for more, as he took out a pencil. 

“Mind if I mutilate? 

“What I mean,” he went on, “is that the poem should speak 
for itself from first to last. There’s too much you in it. The poet 
should not intrude his subjectivity, as you do, I think, with 
desperate dashes and an obdurate window-pane. There is al- 
most a touch of the same in ‘blundered,’ since this suggests in- 
sight into the fly’s mind and previous circumstances, whereas 
the poet is justified only in telling what he sees from his desk. 
So,” as he proceeded into action, “I’d strike out ‘desperate’ be- 
fore ‘dashes,’ ‘obdurate’ before ‘window-pane,’ maybe leave 
‘blundered’ in, and end up, leaving out ‘gate’ as perhaps super- 
fluous, with ‘To the pathway back?’ 

“I hope I haven’t been too savage,” he concluded, with a 
smile. 

On a fresh sheet of paper we set down the revision a& sug- 
gested. Here it is: 

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“the fly’' and its problems 

A big, black buzzing fly, 

So safe in the open sky. 

Has blundered into the room 
And begins its battle with doom. 

With dashes and loops 
It bashes and swoops 
And bangs again and again 
At the window-pane. 

I sit at my desk to write. 

Entrapped in the creature’s plight. 

Has it lost the power of sight? 

Has it missed the invisible crack ? 

To the pathway back? 

(In the process I eliminated “recoils” to make a line equal in 
length with the one before it.) 

“I really think you’ve got something there,” I acknowl- 
edged. “At this moment I feel you’ve improved the poem im- 
mensely. But I don’t know how well it will strike me on later 
reflection.” 

“After all,” he replied, “what I’ve suggested is of course only 
tentative, a first reaction. The question still remains open: 
When is a poem ever finished?” 


107 



A Man from Porloc\ 




In the midst of recording Kubla Khan, which had come to 
him complete in a dream, Coleridge was interrupted by a 
visitor, “a person on business from Porlock.” The intrusion 
broke the spell; “all the rest had passed away like the images 
on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.” 

He dreams and breathes an ether rarer 
Than natural air, of splendor fairer 
Than planet-blaze, distilled of honey-dew, 

Gilding the pleasure-dome of Xanadu; 

And journeys on through fabulous dimensions 
Of time and space, to measureless expansions, 

Tracing the mystic venture of the soul 
Along its bright and labyrinthine trail. 

A blessed region, a celestial season, 

A realm where magic rules and outlaws reason, 

A poet’s universe of song and sight. 

Of ecstasy and radiance and delight; 

An atmosphere too exquisite, too pure 
To mix with cruder substance and endure. 

Whether a man from Porlock, or our own 
Unbidden daemon casts the crucial stone. 

The end’s the same: the most we can redeem 
Is but a fragment of the dream. 

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